Twitter swastika hack comes at fragile time for company

Sarah Frier
Bloomberg News

With revenue already forecast to decline this year, Twitter Inc. can’t afford to spook users or brands. So it didn’t look good when an outside application on its social media service was hacked, triggering a torrent of swastika-filled tweets.

Several high-profile accounts, such as Forbes Magazine, BBC North America, Amnesty International and Reuters Japan, started tweeting with Turkish-language hashtags like “NaziGermany” and “NaziHolland” on Wednesday, while posting content supporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The accounts had been using Twitter Counter, a marketing tool that lets people and businesses track their popularity on Twitter. Even though Twitter doesn’t own the tool and wasn’t directly responsible for the breach, the company’s shares slipped the most in more than a month.

“Anything that shows that Twitter is vulnerable is something that users and advertisers pay attention to,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at eMarketer, who predicts the company’s U.S. revenues will decline this year for the first time. “We’re already seeing Twitter facing a lot of challenges on its business and a hack into a third party is not great news — there’s a fear for personal safety as well as brand safety.”

Twitter’s longevity depends on prominent users, such as media companies, politicians and celebrities, continuing to post their latest information on the service first. Improving safety has been one of Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey’s top priorities this year, following high-profile departures from the site due to harassment or abuse.

Security breaches can affect any company, but when they happen they can harm the perception of the business. Yahoo! Inc.’s sale to Verizon Communications Inc. was delayed and the price cut after revelations of two hacks. The U.S. government accused Russia on Wednesday of being behind a breach of about 500 million Yahoo accounts as part of a broad scheme pairing cybercrime with intelligence gathering.

Politically motivated cyber attacks are likely to become more common, as politicians and media organizations use Twitter to spread their message, said Jens Monrad, senior intelligence analyst at FireEye Inc.

“Cyber threats don’t move backward,” Monrad said. “If anything, the barrier to entry only becomes lower over time.”

Twitter said it quickly located the source of the issue and removed the third-party application’s permissions immediately. The company declined to comment on any changes coming to its relationship with third parties — the slew of businesses that have built programs on top of Twitter’s network.

Twitter shares fell as much as 3.1 percent Wednesday, the most since Feb. 10, adding to what was already a 6 percent decline this year. The company is working toward profitability after a process to sell itself failed in 2016.

Twitter Counter is a little-known marketing company in Amsterdam used to track the popularity of posts on the social network. It had previously been the source of a breach in November, when the Twitter accounts of Xbox, PlayStation, government officials and others were hacked.

“We are aware of the situation and have started an investigation into the matter,” Omer Ginor, the CEO of the company, said. Twitter Counter had been “95 percent certain” it had patched the November glitch. Even though they reopened their service, they couldn’t be sure a hacker still didn’t have access, “lurking in the shadows,” he said.