Sunday, March 27, 2011

Twitter pranks can have significant economic and social impacts

On 23rd March 2011, amidst a stifling hot Wednesday afternoon in Mumbai, tweets and smses stating that the supporting cables on the Mumbai sealink, a landmark construction and major route in the metropolis had broken spread across the city. Multiple forwards ensured the message went viral. Frantic calls by citizens overloaded traffic police call centers attempting to verify contents and traffic congestion was caused by divertion onto alternate routes. The sealink is the only route which offers predictable travel time from the central business districts to the airport. Business executives plan their airport departure based on it. Beside the larger economic consequence and impact to daily life, it maligned the reputation of the company that built the sealink and caused a fall in revenue from toll collection.

The tweet read “Please avoid the Bandra Worli sea link, three supporting cables have just collapsed.Worly sea face jammed.Please RT” and the SMS "Please avoid the sea link as three supporting columns have just collapsed. Worli sea face is jammed. Please tell your loved ones to avoid the inconvenience."

An investigation by the Mumbai cyber police, traced the origin to a Twitter account of a film producer who claimed to have sent the message as a prank intended for a few friends. The film producer had no significant fanbase, with only 2000 odd twitter followers. And although the tweet did state “PL RT” there was no “#sealink”, yet, it apparently spun out of control and snowballed into a major scare.

This event amply demonstrated the impact a rumour spread either intentionally, unintentionally, or retweeted, by a prominent individual on Twitter can have in today’s real-time world. More importantly it shows how a spurious message introduced through a hacked account of a celebrity, prominent person or government organization can have devastating consequences. I normally advise my clients in the Telecom Industry to safeguard their SMS applications from unauthorised uses such as forwarding malicious bulk smses which are intended to cause panic. But as this incident shows, the power is now in the hands of many individuals through Twitter.

Simply put, there has to be a responsibility towards what one tweets and retweets as it is a public communication. Every user should take care to ensure that they take precautions to ensure that their twitter ids are not compromised. On a smaller scale, compromised twitter accounts can be misused to send malicious tweets to your friends publicly or post self derogatory messages.

I look forward to see how the investigation progresses and the punishment awarded under the Indian IT Act.

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