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Twitter aided Pentagon on ‘psyop’ operations says new Twitter files release

The Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. (Dreamstime/TNS)
December 20, 2022

Twitter discretely assisted the Pentagon by permitting it to operate accounts on the platform that the military used for psychological influence operations, according to the latest batch of files in the ongoing “Twitter Files” series.

Intercept journalist Lee Fang wrote the eighth installment of the Twitter Files on Tuesday, showing communications between the Pentagon and Twitter officials. Fang noted that while Twitter gave public assurances that shut down covert state-run propaganda networks, the platform made specific exceptions for accounts operated by the U.S. military.

“Behind the scenes, Twitter gave approval & special protection to the U.S. military’s online psychological influence ops,” Fang tweeted. “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,'” Fang tweeted. “The official asked for priority service for six accounts, verification for one & ‘whitelist’ abilities for the others.”

Many of the accounts on the list CENTCOM sent shared messages that aligned with U.S. military priorities in the Middle East.

“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 tweeted.

According to Fang, the whitelisting of these CENTCOM-operated Twitter accounts meant that they’d be exempt from being flagged for spamming or abusing Twitter rules and they’d be more visible and likely to trend.

“The Pentagon appeared to shift tactics and began concealing its affiliation with some of these accounts — a move toward the type of intentional platform manipulation that Twitter has publicly opposed,” Fang wrote.

Fang shared screenshots showing how one of the accounts changed over time to conceal its connections with the U.S. government.

“One Twitter official who spoke to me said he feels deceived by the covert shift,” Fang tweeted. “Still, many emails from throughout 2020 show that high-level Twitter executives were well aware of DoD’s vast network of fake accounts & covert propaganda and did not suspend the accounts.”

According to Fang, Twitter lawyer Jim Baker was so aware of the military accounts that he commented that they exhibited “poor tradecraft.” Baker had worked at the FBI before being hired on at Twitter.

While CENTCOM had tipped Twitter off to some of its accounts in 2017, Fang reported that Twitter detected other Pentagon-linked accounts that the U.S. military had not previously disclosed to the platform.

Rather than taking any immediate action against the additional Pentagon-linked accounts, Twitter reached out to the Pentagon to review the list of accounts.

“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,” Fang tweeted.

Earlier this year, a Stanford Internet Observatory report revealed the discovery of a network of covert social media accounts operated by the U.S. government. The Stanford report and other media outlets initially credited Twitter with outing the government-linked accounts.

“Twitter’s comms team was closely in touch with reporters, working to minimize Twitter’s role,” Fang tweeted. “When the [Washington Post] reported on the scandal, Twitter officials congratulated each other because the story didn’t mention any Twitter employees & focused largely on the Pentagon.”

This was a breaking news story. The details were periodically updated as more information became available.