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The Twitter Files 11 & 12

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3 Jan, 2023

The Twitter Files 11: How Twitter Let the Intelligence Community In

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Musk, through Taibbi, releases The Twitter Files: How Twitter Let the Intelligence Community In, which further details Twitter’s relationship with Intellignce angencies, such as the FBI.

Taibbi says that in August 2017, when Facebook decided to suspend 300 accounts with “suspected Russian origin”, that Twitter’s leaders were sure they didn’t have a Russia problem, noting that while Facebook had issues with “hundreds of accounts”, Twitter only had issues with around 25. The company’s PR strategy was to deflect to Facebook’s problems. Public Policy VP Colin Crowell:

Twitter is not the focus of inquiry into Russian election meddling right now – the spotlight is on FB

In September 2017, after a manual examination, Twitter informed the senate it suspended 22 possibel Russian accoutns and 179 others with “possible links” to those. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia – ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee – held an immediate press conference to denounce Twitter’s report as “frankly inadequate on every level.”

After meeting with congressional leaders, Crowell wrote:

Warner has political incentive to keep this issue at top of the news, maintain pressure on us and rest of industry to keep producing material for them.

Cromwell also said that Democracts were taking cues from Hillary Clinton, who that week 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.

Twitter formed a “Russia Task Force” to proactively self-investigate. Bu despite forming a “Russia Taks fForce”, which worked with data shared form Facebook, investigatinge accounts supposedly tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), the research came to nothing.

Oct 13, 2017: No evidence of a coordinated approach, all of the accounts found seem to be lone-wolf type activity (different timing, spend, targeting, <$10k in ad spend).

Oct 14, 2017: First round of RU investigation… 15 high risk accounts, 3 of which have connections with Russia, although 2 are RT.

Oct 20. 2017: Built new version of the model that is lower precision but higher recall which allows to catch more items. We aren’t seeing substantially more suspicious accounts. We expect to find ~20 with a small amount of spend.

Oct 23, 2017: Finished with investigation… 2500 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.

According to Taibbi, the Taks Force’s failure deepened the company’s PR crisis: Following Warner’s press conference, stories sourced to the Intel Committee “poured” into the news, inlcuding a story Politico that said “Twitter deleted data potentially crucial to Russia probes.” Johns Hopkins Professor (and Intel Committee “expert”) Thomas Rid:

Were Twitter a contractor for the FSB… they could not have built a more effective disinformation platform.

In Washington weeks after the first briefing, Twitter leaders were told by Senate staff that “Sen Warner feels like tech industry was in denial for months.” Added an Intel staffer said there was “Big interest in Politico article about deleted accounts.”

As this pressure rose, Taibbi says the company changed its tune and Twitter “pledged to work with them on their desire to legislate”. However, even as Twitter prepared to change its ads policy and remove RT and Sputnik to placate Washington, congress turned the heat up more, apparently leaking the larger, base list of 2700 accounts.

Reporters started to call Twitter about Russia links. Buzzfeed, working with the University of Sheffield, claimed to find a “new network” on Twitter that had “close connections to… Russian-linked bot accounts.” but the company internally did not want to endorse the Buzzfeed/Sheffield findings, saying “it will only embolden them”. Twitter apologised to the for the same accounts they’d initially told the Senate were not a problem.

Taibbi says this 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. The company settled on it’s prosture: In public, it removed content “at our sole discretion.” Privately, they would “off-board” anything “identified by the U.S. intelligence community as a state-sponsored entity conducting cyber-operations.” Crowell, in an email to the company’s leaders:

We will not be reverting to the status quo.