New Twitter Files Reveal How Company Allowed Intelligence Agencies to Influence It

New Twitter Files Reveal How Company Allowed Intelligence Agencies to Influence It
Twitter logo and Elon Musk silhouette in an illustration taken on Dec. 19, 2022. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
Naveen Athrappully

A series of tweets by investigative reporter Matt Taibbi has revealed how Twitter came under the influence of American intelligence agencies after concerns about foreign influence put the company under the spotlight.

Until August 2017, Twitter was not on many people’s radars with regard to the Trump–Russia foreign influence scandal. In September that year, Twitter informed the Senate that its cursory review led to the suspension of 22 possible Russian accounts as well as 179 accounts possibly linked to the initial set of accounts. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), who was the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee at the time, called Twitter’s report “frankly inadequate on every level.”

Facing growing anxiety over its public relations problems, Twitter started a “Russia Task Force” to investigate the issue.

“First round of RU investigation … 15 high-risk accounts, 3 of which have connections with Russia, although 2 are RT,” said an October 2017 Twitter memo shared by Taibbi. RT refers to the television network Russia Today, which is controlled by the state.
“Finished with investigation … 2,500 full manual account reviews, we think this is exhaustive … 32 suspicious accounts and only 17 of those are connected with Russia, only 2 of those have significant spend one of which is Russia Today ... remaining <$10k in spend,” said a message from the same month.

Facing Pressure

According to Taibbi, the failure of Twitter’s Russia task force to produce “material” worsened the company’s PR crisis. However, as pressure from Congress and the bad press kept rising, Twitter changed its stance on the scope of the Russia problem that it had earlier characterized as small.

The Senate showed great interest in an October 2017 article by media outlet Politico which claimed that “Twitter deleted data potentially crucial to Russia probes.”

Twitter pledged to work with lawmakers on their “desire to legislate in the area of political ads,” according to another message from the company.

While Twitter was considering removing Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik and also altering its ads policy, Congress “apparently” leaked the names of 2,700 suspicious Twitter accounts. In November, a report from Buzzfeed found that a new network on Twitter had close connections with Russia-linked bot accounts.

Censorship Agreements

The Senate asked Twitter for an explanation following the Buzzfeed article, and the company ended up apologizing for accounts that it had earlier claimed were not a problem.

“This cycle—threatened legislation, wedded to scare headlines pushed by congressional/intel sources, followed by Twitter caving to moderation asks—would later be formalized in partnerships with federal law enforcement,” Taibbi states.

Twitter soon settled on a dual policy. As an “external offboarding policy,” it claimed to remove content “at our sole discretion.” But in its “internal guidance,” the company admitted to offboarding anything identified by the intelligence community as a state-sponsored entity conducting cyber operations.

In an interview with Fox last month, Representative Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) compared Washington’s data gathering with that of the Chinese regime. The United States has a “huge” data privacy void and needs a “uniformed data privacy law,” he insisted.

“What TikTok’s doing isn’t entirely different than what the Twitter files are saying was going on with the United States government. Now, it’s our own government that’s doing it. So, we should be less concerned about it than the Chinese Communist Party doing it, but fundamentally, we have a huge void in privacy here,” he said.

Davidson is pushing a bill that will recognize Americans as having a property right on their data. So, if companies like Twitter or TikTok want to use it, the person can give or revoke permissions for such use.

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