Religion & Liberty Online

The worst Twitter hack

On Wednesday, July 15, some of Twitter’s most prominent accounts – including those of President Barak Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Elon Musk, Apple, and many others – were hacked in an unprecedented Twitter attack. Nick Statt, writing for The Verge, gives a nice summary of the unfolding of this attack:

The chaos began when Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s Twitter account was seemingly compromised by a hacker intent on using it to run a bitcoin scam. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ account was also seemingly accessed by the same scammer, who posted a similar message with an identical bitcoin wallet address. Both accounts continued to post new tweets promoting the scam almost as fast as they were deleted…

Shortly after the initial wave of tweets from Gates and Musk’s accounts, the accounts of Apple, Uber, former President Barack Obama, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, hip-hop mogul Kanye West, and former New York City mayor and billionaire Mike Bloomberg, among others, were also compromised and began promoting the scam.

At this time Twitter is still investigating the attack, but it should be noted that this is not the first time the site has been compromised. Under normal circumstances, social media provide a distorted picture of our social life, tempt us to participate in poisonous outrage, and have the potential to produce “meme-induced disaster” which bleeds over into social unrest in the real world.

These are the potential side effects if we “use as directed”! The prospects of the accounts of prominent leaders in business and politics falling into the hands of coordinated bad actors are, in this context, terrifying.

Martin Gurri, former CIA analyst and visiting research fellow at the Mercatus Center, sees our politics as already distorted and degraded by the lenses of social media. In his recent essay in The Bridge he examines this new “Looking-Glass Politics”:

An unconquerable anger has gripped the democratic world. The public seethes with feelings of grievance and seems ready to wreak havoc at any provocation. The spasm of fury that swept the United States after the death of George Floyd cost 19 additional lives and $400 million in property damage. Last year’s frenzy in Chile was even more disproportionate: 29 persons were killed, property worth $1.4 billion was destroyed, and a constitutional plebiscite was called, all in response to a 4 percent increase in mass transit fares. As far back as 2011, hundreds of thousands of protesters streamed into the streets of Madrid, Spain, without a discernible triggering event. They called themselves indignados: “the outraged.”

Gurri argues, along with the economist Arnold Kling, that the passions inflamed by social media and the collapse of our private and public lives is the underlying cause: “[E]xtreme private emotions have been diverted by the web into the public sphere.”

Both Gurri and Kling argue that traditionally most of our lives, and their attending passions and interests, were dramas set within small communities of persons with whom we interacted regularly. This is the “Dunbar world” of around 150 people, named after British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who first identified it as a cognitive boundary for community in a 1992 paper. Those in their various familial, social, religious, and vocational communities by and large attended to their own business (I Thessalonians 4:11). Kling argues that new media have collapsed old social boundaries of concern and care:

The public feels itself on the same playing field as the elites. Anyone can comment on Twitter. So people who never used to think much about the super-Dunbar world are now trying to take part in it.

There is, Gurri argues, a terrible price for surrendering to the temptation to engage emotionally and socially beyond our own communities of responsibility:

People escape the Dunbar world for obvious reasons: life there appears prosaic and uninspiring. They find a digital interface and, like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, enter a new realm that glitters with infinite possibilities. Suddenly, you can flicker like a spark between the digital and the real. The exhilarating sensation is that you have been taken to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world: “These can be yours, if ….” If your video goes viral. If you gain millions of followers. If you compose that devastating tweet that will drive Donald Trump from the White House. There is, however, an entrance fee. Personal identity must be discarded.

Identities in the smallish Dunbar world are relatively simple and given to you by history: you are “dad,” “school buddy,” “boss,” “rabbi,” or maybe “Miriam at the pharmacy cash register.” For thousands of years, happiness has consisted in turning in a reasonably successful performance in these roles. But the great delusion of the looking-glass world is that you can be anything you want. That’s why you are there, after all: to leave yourself behind.

In losing ourselves in a world of online fantasy, we undermine the ground on which we can actually take responsibility and build authentic community. Without that ground, our passions can only lead us to anger or despair. Gurri sees the present and seemingly now perennial political crises as the outworking of this self-negation and emotional turmoil:

To the extent that current street insurgencies are more than an accumulation of personal grievance, they represent a politics of destruction and despair. The psychological space traditionally integrated with shared customs and institutions, from neighborhood to religion, has shattered into solitary quests to overcome the paradoxes of the looking-glass world. Every statue knocked down in anger offers proof, to someone, that change is possible. As for what remains behind, I imagine it’s exemplified by the empty pedestal: we are looking at nothing – a political void.

This latest attack on Twitter should cause us to carefully examine the looking-glasses through we choose to see the world, unless we become like the one who “gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out – he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:24-25)

(Photo credit: Public domain.)


Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.