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Reuters hacked by pro-Assad propagandists again, this time on Twitter

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Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are stepping up the social media propaganda war, and in the past few days have made Reuters their favorite target.

On Friday, Reuters said its "blogging platform" was hacked illegally. The hack involved at least two false stories being posted in favor of the Assad regime. Overnight, hackers managed to seize control of a popular Reuters Twitter account and briefly blasted out propaganda in Reuters' name to its followers.

According to the news service, the twitter account @ReutersTECH (thanks to Khadijah Britton for pointing this out) was hacked and then renamed to @ReutersME. While the account has since been suspended, a screen cap of the deceptive tweets captures the flavor of internet hacking, complete with sophomoric snark and patently absurd claims.

One says "FSA source confirms heavy losses within their ranks due to the superiority & sheer force of the Syrian army." ("FSA" stands for the Free Syrian Army, the nominal umbrella for insurgents fighting against Syria's Baath regime). Another says "FSA source complains that Syrian army 'broke their back' in Salah al Deen." These are the sorts of things that commanders of armies simply don't say, at least not until after the war is over and their side has lost (while much is uncertain about Syria's future, the fact that the civil war is set to grind on for a long while yet is clear).

The snark comes in statements targeting the US. One tweet says "Friends all along: Obama signs executive order to release classified info that US never stopped funding Al Qaeda since '80s" (in fact, the US has never funded Al Qaeda). Another says "Obama takes Al Qaeda off the List of terrorist organizations" and yet another says "Clinton vows to 'make Egyptian pay a heavy price' after being humiliated with chants mentioning Monica" (a reference to Bill Clinton's long affair with a White House intern). 

It's hard to know if this kind of ham-handed propaganda has much impact. It probably doesn't, though fake news reports have become a popular tool for online propagandists, thanks to the ease with which hoaxes can be set up on the Internet. When a fake story was planted in the press about the Egyptian parliament planning to legalize necrophilia, many of the ignorant ran with it.

Last week Julian Assange pursued his long running feud with the New York Times Bill Keller by having WikiLeaks participate in creating a fake news story under Mr. Keller's byline. While that didn't involve a hack, the hoax was elaborate, with a website set up to look just like The New York Times and fake Twitter accounts created to astroturf the tale.

The Syrian civil war, with limited access for journalists but a proliferation of rebels and regime supporters with smart phones and Internet connections, has been a particularly fertile propaganda battlefield. Far too often, unconfirmed claims emerging on Twitter or YouTube are taken as fact, and presumably the pro-Assad hackers were seeking to amplify this phenomenon in recent days.

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What good does it do them? It's hard to imagine much. These kinds of hoaxes are run to the ground fairly quickly and the only people they appear to take in are those inclined to want to believe them in the first place.

But they're certainly a reminder of the need for caution in approaching online information. If something looks extraordinary, assume it is until you have solid confirmation otherwise.

(This was updated after first posting to remove a reference to how many followers the Reuters account had since there are conflicting claims).

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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