Twitter reportedly struggled to reveal US influence campaign
SAN FRANCISCO — In response to a request from the Pentagon in 2017, Twitter kept online a network of accounts the U.S. military was using to advance its interests in the Middle East, according to internal company emails made public Tuesday by The Intercept, a nonprofit publisher.
One counter-terrorism division of Twitter was aware of the arrangement, but others were not, said five people with knowledge of the matter. When he became more widely known within the company, executives rushed to undo him. But they struggled to publicly disclose military-run Twitter accounts, the people said.
Some of the accounts have been deleted, but others have remained online for years. Twitter finally revealed the American influence campaign this year.
The situation was unusual because normally Twitter removes and publicly discloses influence campaigns run by governments. Social media companies have taken a hard line against state-sponsored influence campaigns since the 2016 US presidential election, when Russia misused Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to sway US voters. But in this case, Twitter’s transparency efforts have moved slowly, and the company has shown deference to the US government.
Internal documents released by The Intercept were provided by Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk. Mr. Musk has made an archive of documents available to select journalists to examine the decisions of former company executives. He did not respond to a file access request from The New York Times.
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It’s unclear whether Twitter, under Mr. Musk, will continue to reveal influencer campaigns on its platform. The billionaire fired many employees who worked to detect foreign influence on Twitter and questioned the level of collaboration between the government and the company under his previous leadership.
Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command declined to comment on the matter.
The situation began in 2017 when an official working with US Central Command asked Twitter to verify some of the military’s accounts, according to an internal company email.
The accounts had been flagged by a Twitter system used to automatically detect terrorist content and were not easy to find in searches. The Pentagon has asked Twitter to “whitelist” the accounts, which would prevent automated tools from flagging them and make them more widely visible on the platform. Twitter’s counterterrorism team has complied, two people familiar with the matter said.
Twitter executives became aware of the situation when a member of the counterterrorism unit asked the extended security team to help automate the whitelisting of US government accounts, three people with knowledge of the situation said. talks. Surprised by the request, the security team asked to review the accounts, the people said.
Twitter allows governments to operate accounts on its platform as long as the accounts clearly indicate who manages them. Accounts that impersonate civilians are prohibited. Some of the accounts in the Pentagon’s 2017 request were clearly labeled as government-run, three people who participated in the discussions said, while others were not.
Twitter executives then deleted some of the military accounts that weren’t clearly labeled, three people involved in the talks said.
But while the company routinely disclosed other state-backed influence campaigns in transparency reports, executives balked in this instance, the people said. Some feared violating national security laws by speaking publicly about the campaign’s withdrawal, they said.
Years later, some Twitter executives said they had conversations with the Department of Defense about deleting all accounts and disclosing them, according to emails published by The Intercept.
“I think having a deeper understanding of what’s going on will help us make a better decision,” Jim Baker, Twitter’s attorney at the time, wrote in a 2020 email. He added that the accounts could be relevant to a military operation that would be interrupted and that “stopping them all at once could jeopardize other operations”.
In August, Twitter announced that it had removed several accounts promoting US foreign policy interests abroad, the first time it revealed such a campaign. Accounts linked to the campaign have also been removed from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Eric Schmitt and ryan mac contributed report.