Fascinating to see NSA-style information warfare tactics adopted by Twitter users yesterday… or perhaps the NSA was inspired by Twitter. In any case, the events had the flavor of a sci-fi espionage story, and could definitely become such a story with the proper coaxing.
You may have heard about a recent cyberattack against the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM). With suspected origins in China, the unprecedented hack affects up to seven percent of the American population. Stolen data includes:
“…drug use, romantic histories and close friends abroad of those in the military, National Security Agency (NSA) and sensitive State Department posts, among many others, essentially a road map for what weaknesses might be used for blackmail by a foreign power.”
The NSA isn’t the only one with skin in this spy game. It’s a well-known infowar tactic to ruin radical Muslim clerics’ reputations by exposing their online porn browsing habits to faithful congregations. Extremist Islam doesn’t take kindly to pornography, it seems.
Enter the Tyga
Likewise, despite recent flag-waving to the contrary, much of Twitter openly endorses homophobia while apparently excusing pedophilia, or at the very least, statutory rape.
Trending on Twitter yesterday was an entertainer’s stage name: “Tyga”. Tyga, age 25, is a rapper by the name of Michael Ray Nguyen-Stevenson. He became hashtag fodder for allegedly cheating on his 17-year-old girlfriend Kylie Jenner (@KylieJenner) with transgender pornstar Mia Isabella (@THEMiaIsabella).
Note that Mia Isabella also has an Instagram account:
All of this is publicly available and accessible data about well-known individuals. None of this data is private.
Here’s where the interesting part begins.
On Twitter, thousands of tweets poured in every hour about the discovery that Tyga had maintained a secret three-year relationship with Mia Isabella. The mainstream entertainment media ran wild with the story as well, repeating the same facts. It all relied on the publication of intimate cellphone photos displaying Tyga’s tattooed nether regions. The photos were mixed in with screenshots of texts between a phone number that may have been his, and a phone number that appeared to belong to Mia Isabella.
Twitter users raged and ridiculed, cackled and heckled, predicting the demise of both Tyga the rapper and Michael Ray Nguyen-Stevenson the human being. As is sadistically commonplace on the Internet, calls came forward, then were retweeted and reposted, requesting none too politely for him to disappear and/or commit suicide.
No big deal, right? Rappers exist as hypermasculine caricatures, anyway, right? If you call a rapper a “faggot” — much less provide evidence — his career as a lyric-slinging tough guy is as good as finished.
That seems to have been exactly the intention of whoever was behind the scandal. The question of where the nude pictures and sexy texts came from is made almost irrelevant by the human element at play.
Two minutes of searching the Internet revealed that Mia Isabella’s alleged Instagram account was not, in fact, owned by Mia Isabella at all. The trick was that the fake account took the username “therealmiaisabella”. Do you remember what the actual account was named? Probably not (hint: look above to refresh your memory). It would be easy to believe that the word “real” was, well, real.
Meanwhile, Ms. Isabella’s actual, easily-found Twitter and Instagram accounts make absolutely no mention of Tyga whatsoever.
This means that someone:
– “borrowed” Mia Isabella’s identity and a few photos of her;
– most likely hacked Tyga’s phone to obtain the nude images of him;
– created a fake Instagram account to closely mimic Ms. Isabella.
The aspect of this that falls into the category of “information warfare” is the exploitation of Twitter users’ gullibility and homophobia. Less than one in every hundred tweets on the topic contained mention of the fact that Mia Isabella wasn’t the owner of the faked Instagram account. In their haste to digitally crucify Tyga, practically no one bothered to check.
Even more cunning is the timing involved: Tyga just released an album that sold quite poorly, damaging his reputation. The fake Mia Isabella therefore timed her attack for maximum damage to an already-tarnished public image. Fake Mia even upped the ante by claiming to have video of her having “gay” sex with Tyga. The video, warned Fake Mia, would be posted at 12am unless Tyga paid her a suitable fee for services rendered. An explicit photo offered as proof was quickly debunked as belonging to a completely different person who bore no resemblance to Tyga aside from skin tone. Still, the Twitter Hate Parade continued unabated as frenzied users counted the minutes until midnight.
Predictably, no incriminating video ever turned up on Fake Mia’s Instagram.
A day later, people are still dragging Tyga’s name through the trashbin of Twitter. The Tyga-trashing tweets, at last count, were being written at a rate of 38 per minute.
Who’s blackmailing Tyga? That is still unknown, although he has sought legal representation and the help of the FBI. More importantly, this story is worthy of a science fiction plot due to how Twitter’s users were unwittingly recruited to destroy Tyga’s reputation. Relatively little work was required on the part of the attacker. Every Twitter user who posted bullying and homophobic tweets is complicit in the defamation and blackmail of a celebrity. Not only that, they also implicitly condone sexual relationships with underaged children, in this case teenaged Kylie Jenner.
It’s a story where the only moral agent is the person who takes a moment to seek facts before jumping to judgment. In this case, the battleground was Twitter and the victim was a not-so-innocent rapper. In the near future, such diabolically methodical information warfare tactics could be just one hacked selfie or stolen text away from destroying the reputation of any private citizen.
That’s a science fiction story worth writing, hopefully before it comes true in real life.
P.S. In fact, I’ve already come up with a title: this story (or the set of social engineering tactics it circumscribes) could be called “Shadow Punch”.