The first Twitter Files of 2023 have been released by journalist Matt Taibbi, and they reveal how the intelligence community gained the influence it had over the platform. It begins in August 2017 when Facebook suspended 300 accounts with “suspected Russian origin.”
1.THREAD: The Twitter Files
How Twitter Let the Intelligence Community In
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) January 3, 2023
However, Twitter’s leaders weren’t worried because they were sure there wasn’t a Russia problem. Screenshots of emails from Twitter’s former Vice President, Global Public Policy & Philanthropy, Colin Crowell, and Twitter’s former legal head, Vijaya Gadde, confirm that Twitter had been in contact with Facebook and agreed that the best public relations strategy was to say nothing on record and to issue a statement bringing them “closer to Facebook, their vulnerabilities on this issue, and the follow-up stories on Russia.”
In another email, Crowell noted that Twitter wasn’t the focus of inquiry into Russian election meddling but that the spotlight was on Facebook. The screenshot revealed that a group of Twitter executives were “due to see the Democratic staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee” in a non-public and private meeting.
In the section of the email titled Important Context, Crowell wrote: “Twitter is not the focus of inquiry into Russian election meddling right now – the spotlight is on FB because FB has better targeting ability than we have for campaign-related advertising; and, because the Trump campaign spent massively on FB during the election compared to what they spent w/us.”
Following that, Twitter suspended 22 possible Russian accounts and 179 others with “possible links” to those accounts out of a larger set of 2,700 suspects that were manually examined. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, wasn’t too happy with Twitter. He held a press conference to denounce Twitter’s report as “frankly inadequate on every level.”
Crowell’s response was “#Irony” after he received an email from Warner’s re-election campaign asking for $5. Following that, Crowell met with congressional leaders and told his team at Twitter to keep producing material.
“Warner has political incentive to keep this issue at the top of the news, maintain pressure on us and rest of industry to keep producing material for them.”
He added that the Democrats were taking cues from Hillary Clinton, who said, “It’s time for Twitter to stop dragging its heels and live up to the fact that its platform is being used as a tool for cyber-warfare.”
This led Twitter to form a Russia Task Force due to anxiety over its PR problems. The task force began with data shared from counterparts at Facebook; however, Taibbi noted that those searches of accounts tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) were a dud.
One screenshot read: “No evidence of a coordinated approach, all of the accounts found seem to be lone-wolf type activity.”
Another one pointed out that after manually reviewing 2,500 accounts, they thought it was 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.”
Taibbi noted that the search found “only 2” significant accounts based on the same data that later inspired panic headlines such as “Russian Influence Reached 126 million through Facebook alone.”
Twitter’s failure of its Russian task force to produce material made its PR crisis worse. Several stories sourced into the Intel Committee were reported on in the news. This led Twitter to change its thoughts on the smallness of its Russia problem.
Senate staff told Twitter leaders that Senator Warner felt like the tech industry was in denial for months, and Twitter “pledged to work with them on their desire to legislate.”
Following that, Twitter’s Policy Director, Carlos Monje, shared key highlights of the legislation that Senators Warner, Klobuchar, and McCain were introducing.
“Knowing that our ads policy and product changes are an effort to anticipate congressional oversight, I wanted to share some relevant highlights of the legislation Senators Warner, Klobuchar and McCain will be introducing,”
As Twitter began preparing its ads policy and removing RT and Sputnik to placate Washington, the committees leaked the larger list of 2,700 accounts. This led to a media circus, with Twitter being the star of the show. Internally, Twitter didn’t want to endorse the findings by Buzzfeed and the University of Sheffield, which said they found a new network on Twitter with close connections to Russian-linked bot accounts.
The Senate asked Twitter for a write-up of what happened when the Buzzfeed piece came out. Twitter then apologized for the same accounts it initially told the Senate was not a problem. This led to a new revelation. “Reporters now know this is a model that works.”
Taibbi noted that this cycle would later be formalized in partnerships with federal law enforcement. And this is how the intelligence community gained its influence over Twitter. In public, Twitter would remove content “at our sole discretion.”
Privately, the platform would “off-board” anything that was “identified by the U.S. intelligence community as state-sponsored entity conducting cyber-operations.”
If you would like to access all of the Twitter files, an archival website has been built, which includes all of the threads as organized, long-form blog posts and links to articles written by the independent journalists who have released the Twitter Files.
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