‘Houseparty Hack’: Viral misinformation is eroding public trust in technology

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COVID-19 has decimated industries, devasted educational institutions, and butchered many small businesses. However, new technology has, again, profited, which is a recurring theme of the past few decades. As social media has risen as an alternative to mainstream media in a polarised political climate, virtual house party apps have capitalised on the limited social freedoms that the world is now facing. This sudden popularity explains the fact that Houseparty, the most downloaded video sharing app by far, is rumoured to have exploited innocent users.

This convincing, damning rumour materialised just as families all over the world, older family members included, were having virtual fun. This is, undoubtedly, a positive product from obeying the difficult quarantine laws in place worldwide. Rumours are often ugly, destructive creatures, unjustifiable in this crucial point of the crisis, but ones like this have to be scrutinised for the protection of customers, many of whom are, sadly, now financially insecure.

On Monday 30th, Sarah Manavis, writing in the New Statesman, comprehensively outlined how the scam evolved from one mysterious tweet to a viral flurry of posts. The article highlighted Houseparty’s official line that it does not possess enough sensitive information for bank accounts to be hacked. The main concern is Houseparty’s controversial USP of anyone being able to gate-crash unlocked parties.

In my opinion, that danger is controllable via the user’s own restriction of locking the party and that parents should closely monitor all online activity their children engage in. This is not on par with thousands of pounds being stolen from user bank accounts. This story has not received the same quick viral attention and, like many reliable sources of information, the truth and critical analysis are lost in the algorithms. This rumour exposes the main issue with journalism today, which is how headlines are generated by only a few unsubstantiated tweets. Twitter has dominated media discourse, providing ‘debates’ for morning shows, and, now, the platform is let loose to ruin a uniting brand. One tweet can have far too much toxic influence.

Houseparty itself was right to swiftly address the damaging rumour, but its advertisement of $1 Million to whoever can uncover the instigator is wrong. This amount of money makes it seem as though there was an actual scam, and it assumes that there is one individual or group at hand, not a complex, international web of misinformation. The company should have also realised that giving this amount of money to the first individual to uncover the ‘smear campaign’ actually focuses the attention on the lone sleuth and not the billion-dollar company incapable of defending its own security.

Houseparty is great, or bad, depending on which way you look at it, with its utilisation of phonebooks that means your normal Facebook or phone contacts automatically appear. As users, we are supposed to trust an app, which is relatively unheard of, that offers video call functions equal to Messenger or Skype. Houseparty should have gone overboard with its media response, offering education to the public about online safety, how its data is used, and providing assurance that online banking is protected on personal devices. In these quarantine times, society is currently very reliant on technology. Competent and trustworthy digital giants should, at least, work together to prevent viral misinformation that threatens quarantine communication.

Seamus O’Hanlon

Image: Pexels.