March 3, 2021

Media Decoder Blog: Hackers Take Over NBC Twitter Account

A Twitter account belonging to NBC News was hacked on Friday evening by an entity that claimed, falsely, that an airplane had crashed at the site of ground zero in New York.

The account was swiftly taken offline and the news division apologized. The incident was deemed serious enough that the news anchor Brian Williams read the apology out loud on the “NBC Nightly News.”

“The NBC News Twitter account was hacked late this afternoon and as a result, false reports of a plane attack on ground zero were sent to @NBCNews followers,” the statement issued by the news division and read by Mr. Williams said. “We are working with Twitter to correct the situation and sincerely apologize for the scare that could have been caused by such a reckless and irresponsible act.”

The NBC Twitter account had about 130,000 followers, only a fraction of whom likely saw the Twitter message when it was posted. Still, the false claim rippled across the short messaging Web site in a matter of minutes, alarming some people on a day of heightened anxieties about potential terrorist attacks. Authorities have warned of a nonspecific bomb threat possibly tied to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The attacks will be commemorated at ground zero on Sunday.

The false claim was knocked down with impressive speed on Friday, suggesting that both Twitter and news organizations are learning how to grapple with such incidents.

Ryan Osborn, the director of social media for NBC News, said he saw the hackers’ Twitter message appear online about 40 seconds after it was posted. He was already logged into the account and quickly realized that the password had been changed. “We are taking this breach very seriously,” said Mr. Obsorn, who said the organization has existing security and password policies in place.

Mr. Osborn contacted officials at Twitter, and he said they suspended the account within eight minutes, including the account that claimed responsibility for the hack.

What helped minimize the spread of misinformation was that employees inside NBC News — and others on Twitter who recognized that the account had been hacked — immediately sent out tweets saying so. “We have a great community throughout this building and throughout the Web,” Mr. Osborn said. “It was great to see people correct such terrible misinformation.”

He added, “For anyone who works in journalism, it is terrifying to see people not respect facts. It is scary.”

Twitter declined to comment on the incident, citing a policy against commenting on individual accounts. In July, when a Twitter account belonging to Fox News was hacked and was used to disseminate false claims about President Obama, the Web site issued this series of tips about account security.

Twitter said earlier this week that it now had about 100 million active users each month, some of whom depend on the service for news and information.

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