Nation & World

Florida senator takes Twitter to task, says hoax ‘scares me to death’

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, seen here in Congress this week, met with Twitter executives Thursday to press them on what they are doing to prevent disinformation in social media.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, seen here in Congress this week, met with Twitter executives Thursday to press them on what they are doing to prevent disinformation in social media. AP

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday that Twitter is taking steps to guard against the kind of fake tweets that hit The Miami Herald last month, but that “a lot more has got to be done.”

Nelson called for a technical summit, led perhaps the Federal Trade Commission, to “get all of the relevant companies in the same room and talk about this problem with a collective sense of urgency and come up with some solutions.” Such a summit should include social media platforms, digital content companies, software developers, news organizations and government agencies, he said.

However, the Twitter executives who met with Nelson Thursday declined to identify those behind the hoax, which came shortly after the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.

In the aftermath of the school massacre, a perpetrator sent out tweets containing manipulated images purporting to be tweets from a reporter at the Herald, a McClatchy news organization. The fake tweets appeared intended to rile the public, asking the race of the gunman and seeking photos from the scene.

The Herald reporter, Alex Harris, notified Twitter in the late afternoon of the fake tweets and received a response from the company at 5:23 p.m. that it would look into the matter. Over the course of the evening, other fake tweets went out at 8:25 p.m. and again at 10:50 p.m.

According to the Twitter executives, the 10:50 p.m. fake tweet was seen only by 600 people. Harris posted her own tweet at 10:52 p.m. decrying the “doctored versions of tweets I sent while trying to tell the stories of victims and survivors.”

Nelson said Twitter executives told him the company’s algorithms elevated the visibility of Harris’s last response so that 600,000 account holders saw it. He said the hoax could have gone uncontested for many hours if it weren’t for the reporter’s quick response.

“What if she had been asleep and didn’t see that until the next morning when she’s drinking coffee?” Nelson asked.

In a statement, San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. called the meeting with Nelson “productive” and added: “We appreciate his leadership, and take the issue of information quality on our platform very seriously.”

Still, the company declined to provide information about the accounts used in the hoax, including a second incident in which a software-manipulated fake Miami Herald news story was passed around on Twitter and Snapchat. The fake story suggested that another school massacre was in the offing, this one to the south in Miami-Dade County, alarming parents, students and teachers alike.

Nelson said he’d like to know not only the identity but also the nationality of the perpetrator or perpetrators.

Twitter, Nelson said, is “taking some positive steps but a lot more has got to be done. I’m not sure that they have the ability to figure out all these nefarious actors.

“They are taking down accounts and fake tweets as fast as they can. Is it as fast as they should be and are they looking at the foreign actors?” Nelson asked.

Nelson, a Democrat who is ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said disinformation on social media platforms “scares me to death,” especially in an election year.

Two days after the Parkland massacre, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller filed an indictment charging 13 Russians with carrying out a campaign of “information warfare” against the United States, partly through the use of fake tweets and stories on social media promoted by robotic networks, sometimes referred to as bots.

“We ought to do this before the 2018 elections because these guys are coming fast and furious,” Nelson said. “If it’s not the Russians, it’s certainly the people who are going to use untrue things to try to tear down their opponents in an election.”

He added that the hoax perpetrated on the Herald, “is going to happen to me in the election.” Nelson is running for his fourth six-year Senate term in November.

Aides to Nelson said Twitter executives, including Carlos Monje, director of the firm’s public policy office, told them that the company plans to strengthen ways to verify accounts, perhaps showing formal affiliations of account holders to groups or institutions, like sports leagues, corporations or political bodies.

Sen. Jeff Flake took aim at President Trump while speaking on the Senate floor on Jan. 17. “Mr. President it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joesph Stalin to describe his enem

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4