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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.

11 Dec, 2022

The Twitter Files 4 – The Removal of Donald Trump (Post Jan 7)

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Following the release of The Twitter Files Part 3, which detailed senior Twitter staff’s actions up to January 7, 2021, Musk, through Shellenberger, releases The Twitter Files Part 4: The removal of Donald Trump: January 7. The files details how Twitter staff  created justifications and unique policy changes so they could ban President Trump from the platform, while having no consideration for free speech issues.

After Jan 6, Michelle Obama; tech journalist Kara Swisher; the Anti-Defamation League, and many others called for Trump to be banned from Twitter. At that time, CEO Jack Dorsey was on vacation in French Polynesia and left the handling to Yoel Roth (Global Head of Trust and Safety) and Vijaya Gadde (Head off Legal, Policy & Trust).

Schellenberger notes that in 2018, 2020, and 2022, 96%, 98%, & 99% of Twitter staff’s political donations went to Democrats and that Roth had previously tweeted that there were “ACTUAL NAZIS IN THE WHITE HOUSE”.

On Jan 7, Dorsey emails employees to say Twitter should remain consistent in its policies, including the right of users to return to Twitter after a temporary suspension. Around 11:30am PT Roth shares with colleagues that Dorsey had approved a system where five violations (“strikes”) would result in permanent suspension.

GUESS WHAT. Jack just approved repeat offender for civic integrity.

At this point, Trump had four strikes.

On Jan 8, Twitter announces a permanent ban on Trump due to the “risk of further incitement of violence”. Twitter says its ban is based on “specifically how [Trump’s tweets] are being received & interpreted”, despite the company saying in 2019 that it did “not attempt to determine all potential interpretations of the content or its intent.”

Shellenberger notes that the only serious concern expressed within Twitter over the implications for free speech and democracy of banning Trump came from a junior person in the organization.

This might be an unpopular opinion but one off ad hoc decisions like this that don’t appear rooted in policy are imho a slippery slope… This now appears to be a fiat by an online platform CEO with a global presence that can gatekeep speech for the entire world…

Roth then asks colleagues to add “stopthesteal” & [QAnon conspiracy term] “kraken” to a blacklist of terms to be deamplified. Roth’s colleague objects that blacklisting “stopthesteal” risks “deamplifying counterspeech” that validates the election. Other employees note that Kraken is the name of a cryptocurrency exchange and allowlist it. Other struggle with shared screenshots of Trump’s tweet.

Around noon, a confused senior executive in advertising sales sends a DM to Roth.

jack says: ‘we will permanently suspend [Trump] if our policies are violated after a 12 hour account lock’… what policies is jack talking about?”

Roth replies:

*ANY* policy violation

The executive then asks if Twitter is dropping its “Public-interest exceptions” policy, which allows the content of elected officials, even if it violates Twitter rules, “if it directly contributes to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern”. Six hours later, at 7:18pm, Roth replies:

In this specific case, we’re changing our public interest approach for his account to say any violation would result in suspension.

At 12:27am Roth pushes for a permanent suspension of Rep. Matt Gaetz even though it

doesn’t quite fit anywhere (duh)…I’m trying to talk [Twitter’s] safety [team] into… removal as a conspiracy that incites violence.

Around 2:30, comms execs DM Roth to say they don’t want to make a big deal of the QAnon ban to the media because they fear “if we push this it looks we’re trying to offer up something in place of the thing everyone wants,” meaning a Trump ban.

After an engineer expresses concerns that Trump’s account is being treated differently to others, Roth says:

To put a different spin on it: policy is one part of the system of how Twitter works… we ran into the world changing faster than we were able to either adapt the product or the policy.”

10 Dec, 2022

The Twitter Files 3 – The Removal of Donald Trump (Pre-Jan 6)

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Musk, through Taibbi, releases the third installment of The Twitter Files, titled THE REMOVAL OF DONALD TRUMP Part One: October 2020-January 6th.

The world knows much of the story of what happened between riots at the Capitol on January 6th, and the removal of President Donald Trump from Twitter on January 8th. We’ll show you what hasn’t been revealed: the erosion of standards within the company in months before J6, decisions by high-ranking executives to violate their own policies, and more, against the backdrop of ongoing, documented interaction with federal agencies. This first installment covers the period before the election through January 6th.

Taibbi provides internal Twitter messages indicating that as the election approached, senior executives – perhaps under pressure from federal agencies, with whom they met more as time progressed – increasingly struggled with Twitter’s rules, and began to speak of “vios” (violations) as pretexts to do what they’d likely have done anyway.

As described in Twitter Files 2, a core group, working above and outside of Twitter’s standard content moderation rules, would make ad hoc decisions on VITs (Very Important Tweeters).

Messages from Yoel Roth (Head of Trust & Safety) show he met weekly with the FBI, DHS and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Regarding the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story ban, Roth told those agencies:

We blocked the NYP story, then unblocked it (but said the opposite)… comms is angry, reporters think we’re idiots… in short, FML (f*ck my life).

Based on alerts sent by the FBI, Roth flagged tweets with warning labels. Taibbi says he could not find any such requests from Trump’s team or Republicans:

Examining the entire election enforcement Slack, we didn’t see one reference to moderation requests from the Trump campaign, the Trump White House, or Republicans generally. We looked. They may exist: we were told they do. However, they were absent here.

In addition to issues with Trump, Taibbi also recounts a long discussion about a joke made by Mike Huckabee about mailing in fake ballots and conversations promising to hit the actor James Woods “hard” in future, even though he had not violated any rules. Meanwhile, disputed pro-Biden tweets were approved.

Regarding Trump, Taibbi says that Twitter attached automated control “bots” to his account, which triggered automated moderation actions. Taibi says that all these bots and rules were abandoned on January 6.

The firm’s executives on day 1 of the January 6th crisis at least tried to pay lip service to its dizzying array of rules. By day 2, they began wavering. By day 3, a million rules were reduced to one: what we say, goes

Around 3:30 PST on Jan 6, Roth “bounced” (put in a 12 hr timeout) three of Trump’s tweets. A company-wide email was sent by Gadde explaining that future violations would result in a permanent suspension.

After Trump tweeted “Go home with love & in peace” mid-riot, Twitter staff wrote:

What the actual f*uck? Sorry, I actually got emotionally angry seeing that. Turns out I’m not a full robot. Who knew?

Taibbi concludes:

By the end of the first day, the top execs are still trying to apply rules. By the next day, they will contemplate a major change in approach.

Taibi says more files will be released over the coming days.

9 Dec, 2022

The Twitter Files 2: Twitter’s Secret Blacklists

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Musk, through Weiss, releases The Twitter Files Part 2, subtitled ‘Twitter’s Secret Blacklists (also called, as a joke, ‘Part Deux’ by Musk), detailing how Twitter executives and staff used internal committees and tools to blacklist and restrict access to certain Twitter accounts in secret.

Such actions were called Visibility Filtering (VF) and included blocking searches of individual users; limiting the scope of a particular tweet’s discoverability; blocking select users’ posts from ever appearing on the “trending” page and from inclusion in hashtag searches. In internal messages, Twitter employees also spoke of using technicalities to restrict the visibility of tweets and subjects.

Users did not know about these techniques. In 2018, Vijaya Gadde (then Head of Legal Policy and Trust) and Kayvon Beykpour (Head of Product) said:

We do not shadow ban.

Twitter employee:

Think about visibility filtering as being a way for us to suppress what people see to different levels. It’s a very powerful tool. We control visibility quite a bit. And we control the amplification of your content quite a bit. And normal people do not know how much we do,

Weiss details several accounts that were restricted, including conservative activist Charlie Kirk, who was set to “Do Not Amplify”; Stanford’s Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who argued that Covid lockdowns would harm children, was put on a “Trends Blacklist”; and the right-wing talk show host, Dan Bongino was restricted using a “Search Blacklist”.

The Files include details about two internal committes: The first group, known as the SRT-GE (Strategic Response Team – Global Escalation Team) decided whether to limit the reach of certain users. It often handled up to 200 “cases” a day. The second, which was only for the largest, most politcally-sensitive decisions, was known as SIP-PES (Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support), which included Gadde, Yoel Roth (Global Head of Trust & Safety), subsequent CEOs Jack Dorsey and Parag Agrawal, and others. This group operated outside of Twitter’s normal abuse ticketing system,

This latter group restricted the account of @libsoftiktok, subjecting its owner to six suspensions for ‘Hateful Conduct’, despite the committe knowing that LTT has not directly engaged in behavior that violated the Hateful Conduct policy. Weiss contrasts this with Twitter taking no action over posts that revealed the account owner’s home photo and address.

3 Dec, 2022

The Twitter Files 1: How and why Twitter blocked the Hunter Biden laptop story

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Musk releases The Twitter Files, Part One: How and Why Twitter Blocked the Hunter Biden Laptop Story, though journalist Matt Taibbi. In a 30-plus post thread, Taibbi relates how Twitter executives blocked the New York Post’s October 14, 2020, Hunter Biden laptop story, using the excuse that it was ‘hacked’, despite having received no notification or confirmation from law enforcement that the laptop actually was hacked. The posts were given warnings and were blocked from being to be shared on Twitter’s direct message system. Taibbi says that executives did this without CEO Dorsey’s knowledge.

The posts details how political parties were able to contact Twitter executives to censor stories, and show communications between ex-staff, including Gadde, Roth, discussing the block.