Twitter has long insisted that it works hard to prevent and prohibit state-backed propaganda and manipulation on its platform, but that isn't entirely true.
According to the latest installment of the so-called "Twitter Files," the platform was aware of and cooperated with a years-long series of covert Defense Department online operations that used bogus accounts to spread pro-U.S. messaging in foreign countries, particularly in the Middle East, Breitbart reported.
The Twitter Files, of course, are the ongoing series of informative releases from independent journalists who were granted access by tech billionaire Elon Musk to Twitter's internal communications and documents.
Twitter Files Part 8, or "How Twitter Quietly Aided the Pentagon’s Covert Online PsyOp Campaign," was posted on Tuesday by investigative journalist Lee Fang of The Intercept, and it exposed how "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."
Beginning in 2017 at the latest and continuing for at least two years or more -- in some cases, some accounts appear to still be active -- Twitter gave its approval and special protections to at least nearly 200 accounts covertly linked to the U.S. military. That included essentially being "verified" without the distinctive blue checkmark and being secretly "whitelisted" and made exempt from the algorithms and filters that monitor for reports of spam or abuse.
5. The same day CENTCOM sent the list, Twitter officials used a tool to grant a special “whitelist” tag that essentially provides verification status to the accounts w/o the blue check, meaning they are exempt from spam/abuse flags, more visible/likely to trend on hashtags.
— Lee Fang (@lhfang) December 20, 2022
Those accounts initially appeared to overtly disclose their connection to the U.S. military, but then many went dark, so to speak, and began to operate covertly in disguise as independent media outlets and regular users purportedly located predominately in various allied nations in the Middle East, where they posted content that was negative toward Russia, China, and Iran, along with positive content about the U.S. and its allies.
Fang noted that some Twitter employees felt "deceived" by that shift from overt to covert, and documents show some internal discomfort and discussion about the issue among top executives, but it appears that most of the covert propaganda accounts were allowed to continue to operate as late as May of this year.
As revealing as Fang's thread is -- and he provided even more in-depth details in an article for The Intercept -- what he exposed was not entirely new or unknown, though it did help to confirm prior incomplete reports from other sources.
A bombshell report was published in August by a pair of research groups, Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory, that was focused on "evaluating five years of pro-Western covert influence operations" -- though that report fell short of making the connection between the U.S.-based false accounts and the U.S. military.
That report nonetheless noted that the "joint investigation found an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms that used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia."
The report from the researchers in August led to an exclusive investigative report in September from The Washington Post that did link the covert social media accounts to the U.S. military, but was largely focused on an internal review ordered at the Pentagon to ensure those accounts were operating in compliance with various rules and oversight and essentially ignored the role that Twitter had played in allowing those accounts to violate its terms of services.
Twitter liked to claim that it was working hard to keep state-backed propaganda and manipulation off its platform and even testified to such under oath to Congress, but that apparently only applied to foreign nations and not the U.S. government.
Given that it has now been revealed through installments of the Twitter Files that both the U.S. military and FBI were granted special privileges by the platform not ordinarily extended to other users, we must now wonder which, if any, other government agencies were allowed to violate the platform's terms to operate covertly and spread propaganda to influence narratives and public perceptions.