Explained: How Twitter Colluded With Pentagon To Target US Adversaries

Swarajya Staff

Dec 22, 2022, 11:20 AM | Updated 12:52 PM IST

Twitter (Representative Image)
Twitter (Representative Image)

Tech Billionaire Elon Musk on Wednesday (21 December) unveiled the eighth edition of the 'Twitter Files', which revealed that the social media company "quietly aided the Pentagon’s covert online PsyOp campaign".

Musk tweeted a link to the account of journalist Lee Fang, who began posting a series of tweets detailing the company's role in an alleged online psychological operation aimed at shaping opinion in the Middle East and beyond. 

"Despite promises to shut down covert state-run propaganda networks, Twitter docs show that the social media giant directly assisted the U.S. military’s influence operations," Fang said.

Fang said that Twitter has "claimed for years that they make concerted efforts to detect" and "thwart gov-backed platform manipulation".

"But behind the scenes, Twitter gave approval & special protection to the U.S. military’s online psychological influence ops. Despite knowledge that Pentagon propaganda accounts used covert identities, Twitter did not suspend many for around 2 years or more. Some remain active," he said.

He cited a 2017 email from US Central Command (CENTCOM) listing 52 Arab-language accounts that were allegedly used to "amplify certain messages" and given additional visibility by Twitter.

The platform also made these accounts exempt from spam and abuse flags.

"The CENTCOM accounts on the list tweeted frequently about U.S. military priorities in the Middle East, including promoting anti-Iran messages, promotion of the Saudi Arabia-U.S. backed war in Yemen, and “accurate” U.S. drone strikes that claimed to only hit terrorists," Fang said.

These accounts initially disclosed their affiliation with the government, but this information was later hidden from users.

Fang also claimed that Twitter executives and lawyers were aware of the Pentagon's network of fake accounts and covert propaganda, but did not suspend them.

He alleges that Twitter actively assisted the Pentagon's network as far back as 2017, and that some of the accounts were not suspended until May 2022 or later.

"In several other 2020 emails, high-level Twitter executives/lawyers discussed the covert network and even recirculated the 2017 list from CENTCOM and shared another list of 157 undisclosed Pentagon accounts, again mostly focused on Middle East military issues," Fang wrote.

"Many of these secretive U.S. military propaganda accounts, despite detection by Twitter as late as 2020 (but potentially earlier) continued tweeting through this year, some not suspended until May 2022 or later, according to records I reviewed," he added. 

In August 2022, a report from the Stanford Internet Observatory revealed a US military covert propaganda network on various social media platforms, including Facebook, Telegram, and Twitter.

The report claimed that this network used fake news portals and deep fake images and memes against foreign adversaries, including Russia, China, and Iran.

Fang was able to confirm that Stanford correctly identified one account from the 2017 email sent by US CENTCOM.

"In subsequent reporting, Twitter was cast as an unbiased hero for removing “a network of fake user accounts promoting pro-Western policy positions.” Media covering the story described Twitter as evenly applying its policies & proactive in suspending the DoD network," Fang noted.

"The reality is much more murky," Fang said, adding that 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".

"They waited years to suspend," he said.

According to Fang, Twitter’s communications team was closely in touch with reporters, working to minimise Twitter’s role.

"When the WashPost reported on the scandal, Twitter officials congratulated each other because the story didn’t mention any Twitter employees & focused largely on the Pentagon," he said.

"The conduct with the U.S. military’s covert network stands in stark contrast with how Twitter has boasted about rapidly identifying and taking down covert accounts tied to state-backed influence operations, including Thailand, Russia, Venezuela, and others since 2016," Fang noted.

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