Twitter gave “special protection” to social media accounts used by the U.S. military for psychological influence operations, according to documents released Tuesday as part of Elon Musk’s “Twitter Files.”
Lee Fang, an investigative journalist for The Intercept, tweeted a thread titled, “How Twitter Quietly Aided the Pentagon’s Covert Online PsyOp Campaign,” in part eight of the “Twitter Files” reporting series.
1. TWITTER FILES PART 8
*How Twitter Quietly Aided the Pentagon’s Covert Online PsyOp Campaign*
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.
— Lee Fang (@lhfang) December 20, 2022
Twitter gave “approval” and “special protection” to Pentagon accounts, despite having knowledge those accounts used covert identities, according to Fang. (RELATED: FBI Promised ‘No Impediments’ To Data Sharing With Twitter Before 2020 Election, Internal Docs Show)
Fang released a 2017 email showing a request from a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) official regarding Arab language social media accounts used to “amplify certain messages” online. The official requested priority service for six of those accounts, verification for one and a “whitelist” status for the others, Fang reported.
Twitter immediately responded by giving a “whitelist” tag to the requested CENTCOM accounts, according to Fang. The “whitelist” tag is a hidden verification feature exempting designated accounts from being flagged for spam or abuse, and promoting their visibility on hashtags, Fang reported.
The Pentagon accounts promoted anti-Iran messages and frequently tweeted about U.S. operations in the Middle East, such as drone strikes and the Saudi Arabia-U.S. backed war taking place in Yemen, according to Fang. Tweets by the propaganda accounts received little organic engagement from other users, images posted by Fang show.
CENTCOM later changed tack and deleted any disclosures demonstrating ties to the Twitter accounts, Fang reported. The accounts’ bios then allegedly changed to look like organic profiles. A number of Twitter executives and lawyers, such as former Deputy Counsel Jim Baker, discussed the propaganda accounts in email exchanges. The executives also circulated a different list of 157 additional undisclosed Pentagon accounts, according to the “Twitter Files” thread.
Twitter executives talked about strategies to prevent the Pentagon’s accounts from being exposed, Fang reported. In May 2020, Twitter’s Lisa Roman sent the Department of Defense two separate lists of accounts the platform suspected were being used as U.S. propaganda, Fang reported. Some of those accounts continued to post tweets and were not suspended until at least May 2022, according to Fang.
The propaganda accounts reportedly pushed narratives against Russia, China, Iran and other foreign adversaries. Some of them tweeted in Russian and Arabic about U.S. military operations in Syria and did not reveal ties to the U.S., according to Fang.
Officials at Twitter and Facebook contacted the Pentagon in 2020, raising concerns about fake accounts they believed were connected to the U.S. military, The Washington Post reported in September.
The Pentagon conducted an audit of its psyops after multiple social media platforms suspended U.S. military propaganda accounts for violating platform rules, WaPo reported.
A Stanford report released in August 2022 revealed a network of U.S. military propaganda accounts across major social media platforms. The accounts conducted covert campaigns over five years designed to spread pro-U.S. narratives at the expense of foreign adversaries, according to the report.