Twitter secretly boosted US psyops in Middle East, report says
Twitter worked with the Pentagon to amplify propaganda about the United States military’s activities in the Middle East, allowing fake accounts to push pro-US narratives despite pledging to shut down covert state-run influence campaigns, according to an investigation based on Twitter’s internal files.
Twitter secretly created a special “whitelist” exempting accounts run by US Central Command (CENTCOM) from spam and abuse flags, granting them greater visibility on the platform, according to the investigation by Lee Fang, a reporter with The Intercept.
Twitter quietly introduced the feature in 2017 after US military officials asked the company to improve the visibility of 52 Arab language accounts used to “amplify certain messages”, according to the investigation, which was published on Twitter and in The Intercept.
CENTCOM’s “priority accounts” promoted information in support of US military narratives, including criticism of Iran, support for the US and Saudi Arabia-backed war in Yemen, and claims about the superior accuracy of US drone strikes, according to Fang.
CENTCOM subsequently concealed its ownership of the accounts, Fang said, in some cases using fake profile pictures and bios to give the impression they were run by civilians in the Middle East.
While Twitter has said it does not allow deceptive state-backed influence operations, the social media company was aware of CENTCOM’s covert activity and tolerated the presence of the accounts on the platform until at least May 2022, Fang said.
“One Twitter official who spoke to me said he feels deceived by the covert shift. Still, many emails from throughout 2020 show that high-level Twitter executives were well aware of DoD’s [Department of Defence] vast network of fake accounts & covert propaganda and did not suspend the accounts,” Fang said on Twitter on Tuesday.
“For example, Twitter lawyer Jim Baker mused in a July 2020 email, about an upcoming DoD meeting, that the Pentagon used ‘poor tradecraft’ in setting up its network, and were seeking strategies for not exposing the accounts that are ‘linked to each other or to DoD or the USG’.”
Baker, Twitter’s former deputy general counsel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Twitter.
The revelations are the latest in a series of stories based on the so-called “Twitter files” – internal company documents that Elon Musk, who bought Twitter in October, shared with several journalists at non-mainstream publications.
Musk, one of the world’s richest men, has cast the release of the documents as an effort to boost transparency about the social media platform’s operations under previous management, whom he has accused of censorship and favouring liberal views and personalities.
Previous iterations of the Twitter files have documented “blacklists” that limited the reach of conservative figures, as well as the internal deliberations that led to the suspension of former US President Donald Trump from the platform and the suppression of the story about emails on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
The release of Twitter’s internal files has generated a mixed, often polarised, reaction.
While conservatives have seized on the files as evidence of Twitter’s liberal bias and hostility to free speech, many liberal figures have cast the releases as showing the good-faith efforts of employees to grapple with difficult moderation decisions.