“Twitter Files” #11 and 12 dropped on Tuesday, courtesy of independent journalist Matt Taibbi, although the news cycle was dominated by just two stories: 1) the tragic on-field collapse of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, and 2) the struggle within the GOP to elect a new House Speaker who will stand up for conservative principles and issues. Huge stories, yes. And the entrenched bureaucracy (read “The Swamp”) would be delighted if we focused only on those stories at the expense of this latest revelation from Twitter.
So sorry to disappoint them.
On Tuesday afternoon, Taibbi passed along his first release of the day, entitled “How Twitter Let the Intelligence Community In.” It really shows how the government was able to pressure Twitter to give it what it wanted in terms of narrative. Taibbi starts his thread with a tweet that in August 2017, “when Facebook decided to suspend 300 accounts with ‘suspected Russian origin,’ Twitter wasn’t worried. Its leaders were sure they didn’t have a Russia problem.” They saw the concern as being more on Facebook, though they did end up suspending a small number of accounts and citing 179 with “possible links.”
Their “privileged and confidential” email report said that “Twitter is not the focus of inquiry into Russian election meddling right now --- the spotlight is on FB because FB has better targeting ability than we have for campaign-related advertising; and, because the Trump campaign spent massively on FB during the election compared to what they spent w/us.”
But Twitter’s conclusions about meager Russian election interference weren’t nearly good enough for Sen. Mark Warner, then-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He had expected some big-time results from Twitter! So he held a press conference to denounce their report as “frankly inadequate on every level.” A POLITICO story sourced to his committee even accused Twitter of deleting data “potentially crucial to the Russia probes.”
California Democrat Adam Schiff, then-chairman of the House Intel Committee, and recently defeated presidential candidate Hillary Clinton weren’t at all happy about this, either, as it failed to help the narrative that Russia had provided Trump with the help he needed to win in 2016. Hillary stuck to her story of Russian interference even without the evidence, saying, “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.” (Recall that she had also played up the discredited Alfa Bank story.)
Twitter's platform was used, all right, but as a tool of our own government.
Twitter’s VP of Public Policy Colin Crowell, in a burst of insight, updated Twitter’s email report, adding the observation that “Warner has political incentive to keep this issue at top of the news, maintain pressure on us and rest of industry to keep us producing material for them.”
As Taibbi explains, this was a growing PR problem for Twitter, and they addressed it by forming their own “Russia Task Force” to self-investigate. They were under pressure to find Russian interference, but, darn it, they just couldn’t come up with enough of it to satisfy the feds. They’d found only two accounts of significance, one of which was RT (the publication RUSSIA TODAY), and “no evidence of a coordinated approach.”
To please legislators, Twitter prepared to change its ad policy to remove RT and Sputnik, but they applied more pressure and leaked the entire list of accounts Twitter had checked –- the ones they had found not to be problematic. As a result, BuzzFeed reported that there was a “new network” on Twitter that had “close connections to...Russian-linked bot accounts.” Twitter ended up caving and apologizing even for accounts that they had determined were not significant sources of Russian influence.
Taibbi concludes, “REPORTERS NOW KNOW THIS IS A MODEL THAT WORKS. 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.”
And that sets us up for Taibbi's next drop, File #12. The government should've had no involvement in any of this.
Here’s Taibbi’s full thread for File #11…
Later on Tuesday, Taibbi dropped File #12, called “Twitter and the FBI ‘Belly Button.’ We were especially intrigued by that title and will get to that.
This file has to do with an intelligence arm of the State Department called the GEC, or Global Engagement Center, which, with the outbreak of COVID in early 2020, was flagging Twitter accounts and going directly to the media about them. For example, there were accounts that blamed the Wuhan Institute of Virology for the emergence of the virus. (Editorial aside: Crazy talk!) Other accounts went further, saying the new coronavirus was an engineered bioweapon and that the CIA was involved. Accounts also were flagged for retweeting stories on this from ZeroHedge, which had been banned on Twitter.
As Taibbi reports, the GEC had gone directly to outlets such as the AFP (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE), which used the headline, “Russia-linked disinformation campaign led to coronavirus alarm, US says,” and POLITICO, which ran a story about how “Russian, Chinese, Iranian Disinformation Narratives Echo One Another.”
Twitter’s Yoel Roth encouraged outside researchers to work with Twitter instead of going straight to the media. “WE’RE HAPPY TO WORK DIRECTLY WITH YOU ON THIS [the foreign interference stories] INSTEAD OF NBC,” he said.
Roth saw the GEC as inserting itself into the “content moderation club” that included Twitter, Facebook, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI and others. When the FBI told Twitter that the GEC wanted to be included in the “industry calls” shared by social media and government entities, social media executives pushed back, with Roth saying he wanted to keep the “circle of trust” small. The odd thing (to us) is that the executives apparently opposed this because, in their eyes, the GEC was more political than the other government agencies. Where they got that notion, we have no idea. They’d been rolling over for the Democrats at the FBI for years.
The GEC, NSA (National Security Agency) and CIA asked if they could be on the calls, but in “listen mode” only.
And here’s where the “belly button” reference comes from: Elvis Chan at the FBI’s San Francisco field office wrote to these agencies, “We can give you everything we’re seeing from the FBI and USIC [U.S. intelligence community] agencies,” but the DHS agency CISA [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] “will know what’s going on in each state.” He then asked if the industry could “rely on the FBI to be the belly button of the USG.” “USG” means United States Government. “Belly button” means...central point, I guess. Or does it have something to do with the U.S. Navel Academy? Sorry.
Anyway, the various agencies and social media companies set up a secure communications network via Signal. With this in place, Taibbi writes, “Twitter was taking requests from every conceivable government body, beginning with the Senate Intel Committee (SSCI), which seemed to need reassurance Twitter was taking FBI direction. Execs rushed to tell ‘Team SSCI’ they zapped five accounts on an FBI tip.” Requests came from the Treasury Department, the NSA, virtually every state, HHS (Health and Human Services), the FBI, DHS and more.
Taibbi continues: “They also received an astonishing variety of requests asking for individuals they didn’t like to be banned. Here the office for Democrat and House Intel Chief Adam Schiff asks Twitter to ban journalist Paul Sperry." (Note: Sperry should wear that as a badge of honor. He’s one of the best!)
Twitter was acting on almost every request that came in. By this time, as a former CIA staffer working there is quoted as saying, “Our window on [refusing requests] is over.” The war in Ukraine intensified the calls for content moderation, and Twitter was overwhelmed in its job as a paid subcontractor, censoring for U.S. government agencies, a job the government is not constitutionally allowed to give it.