Twitter tightly restricted foreign-influence operations over the last half-decade—except in the case of officials from the U.S. government, who were allowed to use the platform to conduct “psychological influence operations” abroad, as per a new segment of the “Twitter Files.”
The “Twitter Files” are a series of documents that have been made available to journalists, a plan that was pushed by the platform’s newly appointed owner, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The most recent batch of disclosures was made public at the hands of Lee Fang, a journalist for the Intercept.
According to Fang, despite public promises to block all government-sponsored manipulative practices, Twitter made an exception with the U.S. government.
“Twitter gave approval & special protection to the U.S. military's online psychological influence ops,” Fang wrote. “Despite knowledge that Pentagon propaganda accounts used covert identities, Twitter did not suspend many for around 2 years or more. Some remain active.”
“In 2017, a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) official sent Twitter a list of 52 Arab language accounts ‘we use to amplify certain messages.' The official asked for priority service for six accounts, verification for one & ‘whitelist' abilities for the others.”
According to Fang, the accounts were instantly added to a specific whitelist, which gave them greater visibility on the platform and exemption from spam and abuse filtering.
Although the accounts' connections with U.S. government officials were initially exposed, the accounts then attempted to hide these ties. In one instance, a “deepfaked” image was used to strengthen an account’s false identity.
According to Fang, the DoD (Department of Defense)-linked network of accounts “relentlessly pushed narratives against Russia, China, and other foreign countries.”
Although the network was eventually discovered by outside researchers and subsequently banned by the platform, this came a long time after Twitter execs were first made aware of the network's existence and also the efforts to conceal the platform's ties with the U.S. government.
“Twitter actively assisted CENTCOM's network going back to 2017 and as late as 2020 knew these accounts were covert/designed to deceive to manipulate the discourse, a violation of Twitter's policies & promises,” Fang wrote. “They waited years to suspend.”