Syrian hackers seize The Onion’s Twitter account, aren’t very funny

May 6, 2013

Screen shot of The Onion's hacked Twitter feed.

Hackers with the Syrian Electronic Army, which wages cyber attacks in support of President Bashar al-Assad, have claimed an attack on the Twitter feed of The Onion, a satirical news site with almost five million followers.

The hackers took control of the account and sent out a series of messages deriding U.S. policy on Syria, the recent Israeli strikes there and, for good measure, the government of Qatar, which has supported the rebels.

The messages were written in colloquial English and included "meme" images, which are most commonly associated with the link-sharing Web site Reddit. One of the memes, "Futurama Fry," is a reference to the cult American cartoon, "Futurama," which is most popular among college students. That tweet, posted at top, predicted (correctly) that some readers might be uncertain as to whether The Onion had been hacked or was engaging in innocent satire, as it did in 2009 when the news site pretended to accept Chinese state ownership.


Screen shot of The Onion's tweets while hacked.

The messages appeared to be an attempt to mimic The Onion's dryly satirical style, with less than total success. Some of the messages included anti-Semitic commentary.

As is common practice for the group, the Syrian Electronic Army released a screenshot of the hack as a way of taking credit. The computer screen in the photo includes a clock reading 8:39 p.m., indicating that the screen shot was taken in the time zone GMT+2, which includes Syria as well as neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.

The attack is the latest in a string of such attacks on high-profile Western Twitter feeds, often belonging to media companies, such as 60 Minutes and NPR. In April, Syrian hackers seized the Associated Press account, sending out a fake message alleging President Obama had been wounded in a bomb blast. The message, though quickly spotted as a fake, sent markets into a very brief panic that temporarily removed $136 billion in equity from the stock market before recovering.

The Syrian Electronic Army's exact connection to the regime is unknown, but it appears to be staffed mostly by enthusiastic young volunteers, who may be aided by a smaller cohort of professional hackers. The group's attacks on Western targets rarely rise above simple and often-juvenile vandalism. Within Syria, though, the group has used similar tactics to hack into social media accounts of opposition activists, using that information to track and target protests.

Meanwhile, within Syria, regime forces appear to have recently massacred dozens of civilians, including a number of young children, in the towns of Banias and Bayda.

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Max Fisher | May 6, 2013