On Tweets, Lies and Hacked Accounts

Patrick Davison
Michelle C Forelle

“Anthony’s accounts were obviously hacked” — when a lewd photo surfaced on Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account in May 2011, this was his spokesperson’s first public response. It wasn’t long, however, before the truth came out: nothing had been “hacked,” the then-congressperson had mistakenly posted the photograph himself. The initial story of a hacked account was just that — a story. But whether true or false, examining such a story reveals some meaningful insights into the archetype of the hacker and the risks of everyday network use.

Weiner’s claim was one the media was ready (at least initially) to treat seriously; hacking, after all, had made news before (vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin had her Yahoo! emails hacked in 2008, and the so-called hacker group LulzSec had begun operating earlier the same month as Weiner’s debacle). The media-consuming public had become increasingly familiar with such “hacked account” stories. And like so many other of the experiences of digital networks, the hacked account is not wholly like anything else — neither theft nor trespass nor impersonation completely capture the myriad effects that come together in this particular technological drama.

This presentation explores the recent history and contemporary stakes of the hacked account — instances in which a private communication is subverted and made public, or in which a public channel of communication is hijacked. Running throughout these stories is the shadowy figure of the “hacker,” understood here in the popular imagination as the unauthorized user who circumvents security by uncertain means. Whether it’s everyday Facebook users inadvertently spamming their friends or the Associated Press’ Twitter account announcing an attack on the White House, at stake is a host of concerns spanning the privacy, security, integrity and identity of compromised users. In what world, in what context, does Anthony Weiner claim to have been hacked, and in what world do we buy it?