The Next Great Heist…Misinformation

Misinformation and the Internet
The Next Great Heist…Misinformation

Okay so I have seen my fair share of Die Hard-esque, conspiracy laden action movies and would like to think of myself as a generally level headed individual.  Seriously, who could really believe that some Internet savvy, greedy, terrorist organization could take control of an entire US network infrastructure and cause wide spread pandemonium like what happens in Die Hard 4. Even better, what about the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, where a crazy media mogul tries to start a war by leveraging his global media empire combined with the basic vulnerability of a absurdly naive viewing audience. The movie Tomorrow Never Dies was filmed in 1997 and since then we have experienced the rise of Google, heightened popularity of social media platforms, and a general ability to be plugged in and reporting from almost anywhere.

It is in this new modern day, “always-on” society that I wonder: Have we created such a highly integrated, Internet driven society that our basic vulnerabilities are significantly higher today than they might have been even five years ago? (i.e. Are the plot lines of these two movies referenced above really that far out of line?)

Case in point, in 2008 there were 2 occurrences that received moderate news coverage but had a more significant impact than what the standard news media portrayed. Both occurrences involved misinformation and big swings in the public stock prices of two very large companies.  The bigger issue behind both of these stories was the fact that because of the interconnectedness of our modern day world, the misinformation spread quickly and caused downstream affects that were extremely significant. The two publicly traded companies affected in these two instances were Google (GOOG) and United Airlines (UAUA).

The United Airlines scenario is particularly intriguing.  Over the weekend of September 6, 2008 (Saturday) an article was posted to the South Florida Sun Sentinel website that indicated United Airlines was filing for bankruptcy.  The shocking article was actually true with just one problem. The actual bankruptcy filing of United Airlines had occurred approximately six years prior in 2002.  Here is the interesting part, through the wonders of the Web, website visitors began clicking on the article in heavy volumes while visiting the newspaper’s website.  This caused the article to grow in popularity and actual be featured on a most popular article section of the website.  This in turn caused Google’s news reader bots to recognize the significance of the article and index it within the Google news ecosystem.  One search later by an investment advisory / news shop in South Florida and a subsequent Bloomberg update and Voila!, massive sell-off of United Airlines on Monday, September 8th, 2009. How massive?  Below is the trading activity from September 2, 2008 to September 10, 2008.  On the panicked Monday sell-off, United Airlines (UAUA) traded in volumes that were nearly triple from the previous Friday.  More importantly, the stock which had closed at $12.30 a share on Friday reached a intra-day low on Monday of $3.00. The delta of $9.30 a share represented the evaporation of $1.4 Billion, Yes that’s BILLION. Obviously, the move downward on Monday was countered when investors realized the story was old and not relevant.  The thing I find most poignant about this scenario is that it shows both the fragility and strength of our networked society.

Information regarding details of United Airlines bankruptcy filing:  http://www.out-law.com/page-9418

United Airlines Trading Surrounding Bogus Bankruptcy Filing
United Airlines Trading Surrounding Bogus Bankruptcy Filing

The other scenario in 2008 involved Google.  Similar concept, misinformation and interconnected systems cause momentary blip and erratic pattern in trading.

Link to Valleywag article  http://valleywag.gawker.com/5057089/googles-share-price-swings-200-in-a-few-minutes

So what’s the point?

The point is simply a recognition on my part that :

(A) we are more connected and that creates awesome opportunities and also more risks

(B) this interconnectedness could be used by greedy criminals (you know the Die Hard 4 kind) to manipulate markets and momentarily guide opinion and therefore behavior

(C) within this environment we need to craft governmental legislation that will ensure we all are allowed to benefit from the good but limit our downside risk.

In short, I love technology, the Internet and sometimes these social apps. Well sometimes not the social apps, especially when a semi-friend from high school updates me on the fact that they are folding laundry with Tommy.  Either way, it is clear to me that some of these far-fetched plots of Tinsel town could potentially be more viable as we continue to migrate ourselves, our businesses further into the Internet as evidenced by 2 incidents in 2008 (GOOG & UAUA).