Last Wednesday, a Twitter insider helped hackers gain access to several high profile Twitter accounts. Elon Musk, Joe Biden, Bill Gates and others were suddenly tweeting about a Bitcoin scam. The hack revealed just how vulnerable Twitter is to malicious actors, but in many ways we were lucky. According to a research paper released just hours before the attack, a similar hack could pave the way to a nuclear war.
“It took me a moment to realize that pretty much everything we had suggested and what we thought were quite extravagant and perhaps doomsday-esque scenarios that we suggested, had always been blown out of the water by reality,” Dr. Alexi Drew, a Research Associate at King’s College London and co-author of Escalation by Tweet: Managing the New Nuclear Diplomacy, told Motherboard on the phone. “This was a dangerous hack, especially given the nature of the access gained."
According to Drew, we were all lucky that the hackers seemed financially motivated. “Access gained through this administrator tool could have caused far greater damage and far wider damage than it did,” she said.
Escalation by Tweet makes the case that politicians and others in power need to be more careful about how they do business on social media. The line between personal shitpost and official government dictum has evaporated in the Trump era.
“The usage of social media, and Twitter in particular, has accelerated into the official space faster than there’s an actual understanding of what that means by those using it,” Drew said. “The more tonality you introduce to the messages, the easier it is to be misinterpreted or reinterpreted by intermediary actors.”
In their paper, Drew and her co-author Heather Williams make the case that aggressive tweets by political actors could have real world consequences. In a worst case scenario, that consequence could be nuclear war.
It sounds ridiculous on the surface, but the idea that Trump’s bad tweets could cause a nuclear war has been the subject of concern and consideration since his inauguration. In 2018, Jeffrey Lewis—a nuclear policy expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies—published The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Attacks Against the United States .
Lewis’ book is a fictional account of President Trump starting a nuclear war with North Korea. In the book, Trump insults North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s sister in a tweet which causes Kim to launch a nuclear weapon at the U.S.
“I’m getting a little anxious to be completely honest,” Lewis told Motherboard over the phone. “Trump has turned out to be way worse than I imagined. Could a tweet trigger a nuclear war? The answer to that question is so obviously yes.”
According to Lewis, people tend to see social media as a less serious form of speech. “If the president says it on CNN or in the newspaper or to a foreign leader, that’s somehow real speech and that all the things Trump says on Twitter somehow aren’t real speech. But of course they are.”
Escalation by Tweet sees a nuclear disaster as a worst case scenario. Drew never anticipated a twitter beef actually leading to nuclear war.
“The only thing that makes me reconsider is the hack,” she said. According to Drew, for a hacker to take control of a Twitter account and lead a country into nuclear war would take an extraordinary set of circumstances. Most political Twitter accounts, for all their bluster, aren’t antagonizing other countries to the point of conflict.
With one exception—Donald Trump. “That really is the problem, isn’t it?” Drew said.
According to both Drew and Lewis, politicians need to realize that their tweets are meaningful forms of speech. But part of the problem is that the platforms themselves incentivize incendiary rhetoric.
“Twitter is, as a medium, designed to incentivize the attraction of greater followers and greater interaction,” Drew said. “If you're a public service or public servant. It shouldn't be about maximizing your engagement or your follower account. It should be about transmitting accurate information in an effective manner and reaching your audience. What you need is a government wide set of social media policies that make it clear what Twitter and other platforms should be used for and what they should not be used for.”
We’ve seen codified government social media strategies before and they’re grim. On New Years Eve in 2019, U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom)—a joint military command responsible for missile defense and nuclear operations—tweeted out a veiled nuclear threat. “#Timessquare tradition rings in the #NewYear by dropping the big ball...if ever needed, we are #ready to drop something much, much bigger,” Stratcom tweeted.
A Freedom of Information Act Request later revealed Stratcom’s social media strategy. The people in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal were more interested in gaining followers on Twitter than conveying accurate and reasonable information.
“The majority of the document is about how to maximize engagement with the public,” Drew said. “It should be guidelines as to how to ensure that you’re not destabilizing conflict by tweeting about potentially dropping nukes on New Year’s Eve. Which is what they did.”
Bad actors on the platform are only part of the problem. “Tech companies need to be held responsible for their platforms in a way they are not currently,” Lewis said. “They have created these spaces that have dramatic impacts on our society. The reality is that this is a mode of presidential communication and that comes with all the responsibilities of conveying high level political communication about life and death matters. Was anyone at Twitter fired for this? Possibly someone should go to jail. This is really serious stuff.”
According to Lewis, people tend to see social media as a public sphere run by tech companies. These spaces, we think, are free of agenda, blank slates people can fill in with whatever they want. “But that’s not right,” Lewis said. “Because [tech companies] make all kinds of choices about who sees what and who gets amplified. The extent to which they are held accountable is not commensurate with their responsibility.”
Drew also said tech companies have to take more responsibility. “I think they need to explain what happened, how it happened, and potentially more importantly, what they're going to do both technically, and in terms of policy moving forward, to ensure that it doesn't happen again. They need to rebuild trust.”
Changes to the platform will only go so far if a hot headed dictator or U.S. President decides to vent their frustrations on social media. “If these findings could be summarised in 280 characters or less,” Escalation by Tweet said. “It would be: ‘To manage escalation during crises, stop tweeting.’"