Jul 18, 2020 - Technology

Tweeting our way to a nuclear war

Illustration of a Twitter logo over a button.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new report outlines how miscalculations and misinformation on Twitter could lead to global war.

Why it matters: Social media platforms like Twitter have vastly accelerated the pace of communication. Without restraints, it's far too easy to imagine how errant tweets could cause international disputes to escalate out of control.

Driving the news: A huge Twitter hack on Wednesday led to the hijacking of authenticated accounts from major figures like Joe Biden and Barack Obama, exposing the vulnerability of a platform that has grown to become a vital platform for real-time information.

What's happening: In a new report coincidentally released the same day as the hack, researchers at King's College London's Centre for Science and Security Studies explored what would happen if those vulnerabilities were exploited on the international level.

  • The "speed, informality and openness" that makes Twitter unique as a communications platform also makes it particularly ripe for misunderstandings.
  • That's a minor issue if the misunderstanding is, say, a feud between two celebrities.
  • It's a much bigger deal if the misunderstanding is between two nuclear-armed nation-states.

Of note: In a 2018 novel, the arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis crafted a fictional scenario where a tweet by President Trump is misinterpreted by Kim Jong-un as a declaration of war, leading the North Korean leader to preemptively launch nuclear missiles at the U.S.

What to watch: The report's authors recommend that the Department of Defense organize an interagency effort to develop best practices for social media use and encourage leaders to refrain from tweeting during crises.

My thought bubble: Axios editor-in-chief Nicholas Johnston has a simple Twitter policy: "Delete your account." We might be safer if more people followed it.

Go deeper: Twitter hack presages a bumpy election

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