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Should agencies really have 'official' Twitter feeds?

Chicago newspaperman Edward H. Eulenberg is credited with telling young reporters, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”*

Good advice, not only for skeptical journalists but also for anyone who is getting information through social networking platforms such as Twitter. Case in point: April’s AP tweet, following a hack, announcing explosions at the White House that caused momentary free fall in the stock markets.

In the end it was no big deal; the news was refuted, stocks rebounded, tragedy averted. But the incident underscores the risks of relying on social media for uses they are not designed and maintained for, especially in the face of growing threats targeting almost anything and everything that is online.

“People shouldn’t be surprised that social media is being attacked,” analyst and former government security official Mischel Kwon said recently. “But they are surprised.”

We are surprised not so much because these platforms are being attacked, but because we have become so sensitive to them. Over the past five years they have moved from casual amusements to being essential tools for businesses and even government. A Google search of the phrase “follow us on Facebook” (admittedly not a scientific method) returned about 3.6 million responses in the .gov domain. The Marines have published a guide for “Building Your Presence with Facebook Pages.”

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it would be wise for agencies — and everyone else — to remember that these platforms were not developed as mission applications and probably are not being maintained with the security that the Marines, for instance, would expect in their own systems or would require of a contractor hosting an official site. The AP Twitter hack appears to have been a simple user-name-and-password breach, and the results of using Twitter as a news feed were at the very least embarrassing for both the AP and those who believed the tweet. (Interestingly, the first item on the AP Twitter feed when I checked the morning I wrote this “Syria's pro-Assad hackers hack and hijack Financial Times blogs, Twitter feeds.”)

As a marketing and public relations tool, social networks can easily backfire. As a means for disseminating official information, they could be disastrous if not adequately secured.

So use social networks with a healthy dose of skepticism. If your mother tweets that she loves you, check it out.

*In the interest of skepticism, it should be pointed out that Mr. Eulenberg claimed that this was a misquote. In his 1988 obit in the Chicago Sun-Times, he is quoted as having said, “I never said that. What I said was, `If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.’” Sometimes it seems as if you can’t trust anyone.

Posted by William Jackson on May 20, 2013 at 9:39 AM


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