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The day my Twitter account was hacked and left to rot out in the sun

Commentary: It was a rough day. My nephew hit me in the balls with a tetherball. Also, my Twitter account was hacked. Hear my tale of woe.

serrelstwitterhack-02
Ian Knighton/CNET

On the day my Twitter account was hacked, my 7-year-old nephew hit me in the nuts with a tetherball.

It was an accident. He didn't know better. I served him a softball and he hit it back as hard as he could swing.

The ball was moving at speed. It cut a tight arc and hit me directly in the right testicle. In a rich twist of fate, I had stepped into the blow, a perfect collision. I feel comfortable saying it's the worst nut shot I've ever endured in my 37 years living on this planet.

A difficult pain to communicate. Pure, abominable agony. Intense, but compartmentalized. I found myself suppressing an overwhelming urge to vomit, but I was also laughing hysterically.

I sank to my knees, clutching my genitals, desperately trying to not poop myself, but I was also aware this was a comedic situation. I was laughing. I screamed out loud, "He hit me in the nuts!" to my wife. She simply shook her head and walked off.

This is not a story about being hit in the nuts with a tetherball.

No, this is a story about Twitter. About how my account was ruthlessly and savagely hacked and left in the sun to rot. It's a tale of woe. A story about social media. About the ways it has tethered itself to our lives in irreversible ways.  

It's a story about pain and how -- in the midst of that pain -- you can still be acutely aware that your suffering is hilarious. Having my Twitter account hacked hurt. It caused pain in ways I couldn't have predicted. But I knew it was funny.

The irritated gorilla

I was aware something was wrong almost instantly.

Sunday morning. July. I awoke groggy, grabbing at my phone like a hungover gorilla. Tried to scroll through Twitter, but no.

For someone savagely addicted to Twitter, opening the app before saying "morning" to your wife is normal behavior.

I was logged out for some reason, which was strange. Not only was I logged out, but I couldn't log back in. I did a search for my email address, but Twitter had no record of it. Weird. How could that be?

Must be the phone, I thought.

But deep in my heart I knew that didn't make sense. My stomach hummed with a low-level anxiety. I stumbled downstairs, opened my laptop.

twitter-logo-shadow-getty-cropped-for-door

No dice. I couldn't log on to Twitter at all.

Not on my phone, not on my computer. Not anywhere.

A quick visit to twitter.com/Serrels confirmed my worst fears. I had been hacked. Big time.

It was bad. Very bad.

@Serrels still existed, but it was a shadow of its former self. My profile pic had been removed, replaced with the default, silhouette icon used to suggest "human being." My cover image was also removed. In its place a logo, all caps, that said "BAD VIBES".

My stomach hit the floor.

I surveyed the damage. Six months of tweets deleted, and 6,000 of my previous 9,000 followers gone.

Perhaps the worst part: Every single person I'd previously followed, people I'd relied on to stay up-to-date on news -- and do my job, essentially -- had been obliterated from my account. I had been following roughly 2,000 people. Now I followed precisely zero.

Bad. Vibes.

So it's like that, huh?

These were the hours of panic and existential dread. My first worry: Is this a sustained attack? Has someone drained my bank accounts dry? No. Thankfully no. Touch wood, no.

Had this person been tweeting as me, pretending to be me, sending direct messages? Trying to ruin my reputation? There were no tweets, thankfully. If they existed, they'd long since been deleted along with six months of my Twitter history.

I frantically asked myself the questions anyone would ask in these circumstances. Why? Who? What the hell was going on? As a journalist, I have potential enemies. Flat-Earthers, Gamergaters. I've written plenty of articles about hack-happy groups that could've taken issue with me. There was plenty to be stressed about. I was paranoid, and justifiably so.

That's when the messages started coming through.

A work colleague: "Hey, why did you block me on Twitter? What did I do?"



A buddy on Facebook: a long, sincere apology for a joke tweet at my expense. She thought I'd blocked her for a completely harmless joke I couldn't even remember reading.

And that's when it dawned on me: I hadn't lost 6,000 followers as a result of the hack. The hacker had actively blocked 6,000 of my followers.

A hacker had blocked and removed some of my closest friends, family and work colleagues on my Twitter account.

At 5:30 the next morning, I received a message from a close friend I've known for over 10 years. After seeing that Shadow Serrels had blocked him, he took it to heart and got upset. He thought the block was deliberate, that I wanted to cut ties. He sent a quick message, "So it's like that, huh?" He blocked me on Twitter and unfriended me on Facebook fully intending, I suspect, to never speak with me again.

Later a mutual friend told him I'd been hacked. He was mortified.

He re-sent a Facebook request, embarrassed he'd misread the situation. He apologized. He'd had a rough day, he explained.

He wasn't the only one.

'Hi'

I tried to rationalize it. "Probably just a routine hack." But I couldn't maintain perspective. My brain kept traveling to strange places, all of which seemed to end with me, a disgraced ex-journalist, sleeping rough at the underpass, my wife remarried, my children gone.

I'm not the first person who's been hacked, and the damage seemed tame compared with what's happened to others. When hackers broke into the Associated Press' Twitter account in 2013, they falsely claimed the White House had been bombed and President Obama had been injured. The tweet sent the stock market into a momentary frenzy.

I'm far less influential or important. But the hack shook me nonetheless.

In the midst of the panic, I emailed Twitter support, which was about as useful as tossing a bottled message into an abandoned well.

No response.

Absolutely nothing. No canned email. No "We'll get back to you within three working days." Absolutely nothing. A deathly, empty silence. An hour later I emailed again. "Did you get the info?"

Frustrated Young Man Screaming While Using Laptop
Richard Theis/Getty

Nothing.

I was screaming voicelessly into the void.

Later I got a message from a former work colleague. For some reason, my Twitter handle was still attached to an official media account I used to write for. The hacker, whoever he or she was, had given themselves access to that account.

They made one single tweet -- "Hi" -- to another account. That account then retweeted the "Hi" possibly as a boast. Potentially that account could have been the hacker themselves, but it's almost impossible to tell.

Strangely it was comforting. My hacker, with access to a massive audience and the potential to cause embarrassment on a grand scale, decided to tweet "Hi" and then leave it at that.

Eight hours Iater I still hadn't heard from Twitter support. Which felt... insane. Worse, I didn't really know how to escalate it. I'd sent three emails asking for help but hadn't even received an autoreply. Deathly silence.

I found a number online. Called it.

"For Twitter support press 1."

I pressed 1.

"Unfortunately Twitter does not provide support over the phone."

I hung up. Thanks a lot @jack.

The wasteland

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To this day, I can't believe this is how a company valued at nearly $25 billion, with 335 million active users, does customer support. While frantically searching, I stumbled across this Reddit thread: "How long does Twitter Support take to respond and help?"

"I've hit them up twice now already and it's been weeks and I've still not received even the slightest sign of a response."

I quietly freaked out.

If I didn't work as a tech journalist, and didn't have pre-existing Twitter contacts, I have no idea how long this issue would have taken to resolve.

Thanks to a handful of friends, I managed to email a couple of Twitter employees directly. Those people were able to escalate my situation. Almost immediately I received an email from Twitter support. Not an email written by a human being, no. An autogenerated email for a specific purpose. I immediately emailed back the details and information asked for.

Again nothing. No response. No confirmation of receipt. No estimate of how long things would take.

Another email cast into the abyss.

And there would be no other response, from Twitter Support at least, until my account was put back in my name, two days later. From this point on, the only emails I received were from very helpful Twitter people I had contacted directly, who kindly urged patience while promising little.

When I finally got my account back, it was a wasteland.

I was still missing six months of tweets, still missing 6,000 followers, all of whom were blocked. I still followed precisely zero people. My friends at Twitter urged me to do as little as possible with my account, as they were hoping to restore it completely. Again no promises.

Welcome back

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Screenshot by Joan Solsman/CNET

For someone shamelessly addicted to his Twitter account, being forced off Twitter ended up being almost a relief.

I love Twitter. I love being connected to news instantly, interacting with like-minded people. I like memes, the instant reactions, the conversations.

I also think Twitter is one of the worst things ever built by human hands.

I think Twitter rewards extreme viewpoints. I think Twitter strangles valuable discourse. I think Twitter creates harmful echo chambers. I think Twitter exacerbates anxiety and depression in vulnerable people. I think Twitter facilitates abuse and bullying campaigns on a grand scale. I think Twitter props up outrage culture. I think Donald Trump could potentially start a world war using Twitter.

I think Twitter should be nuked from space.

In the week my Twitter account was hacked, all the major content and social media platforms made what appeared to be a concerted attempt to deplatform perennial conspiracy nut and Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones. Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify -- in one fell swoop, it seems all these platform holders and more decided to take responsibility and stop Jones from promoting hateful, racist, transphobic content on their sites.

Everyone, that is, except Twitter.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey claimed Alex Jones hadn't broken Twitter's rules, despite the fact he had broken a disturbing number of Twitter's rules. Eventually, after extreme pressure, Twitter would put Alex Jones on a seven-day "timeout." Everyone else expelled Alex Jones; Twitter put him in detention.

It capped off a history of Twitter inaction regarding troubling content being posted on the site. Maybe Seth Rogen was right when he said Dorsey "simply does not seem to give a fuck".

On the day my Twitter account was fully restored, roughly five days after the hack, I sent an email to all the platforms that still hosted Alex Jones or Alex Jones content. It was an email that made zero judgments. A simple request for comment.

Five minutes later, Gab.ai, instead of replying, screencapped the email and tagged me in a Twitter response that featured the words "The Sophist Media is the enemy of the people."

Alrighty then.

Gab.ai was nice about it, but they basically used Twitter to invite 100,000 Alex Jones supporters to harangue me on Twitter.

Ah good. Welcome back.

Thanks for asking

It's been two weeks since my Twitter account was hacked and it's like I never left. Twitter, to its credit, was able to restore my account to its former greatness. The followers, the tweets -- all of it.

I'd like to say I learned lessons. That I use Twitter less, that I realized life was better without it. That I put my phone down, blinked toward the middle distance. Played with my kids more, swam in the ocean, took in some rays.

The truth is I've learned precisely nothing. My life is no different. Twitter is enmeshed in the fabric of my digital life in a way that's near impossible to untangle. I'm not even sure I want to untangle it.

Maybe I don't want to leave. Maybe Twitter, with its likes and its replies and its retweets, has become a game I can't stop playing. Despite the hack, despite the anxiety, despite the harassment.

Nothing has changed. Alex Jones is still on Twitter.

And my testicles are fine. Thanks for asking.

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