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US gov’t demanded Twitter suspend 250k accounts, including journalists, Elon Musk says

Twitter application (Dreamstime/TNS)
January 05, 2023

The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) appeared to take efforts in 2020 to pressure Twitter to suspend around 250,000 accounts over their alleged “inorganic” behavior, according to a recent “Twitter Files” release coordinated by Twitter owner Elon Musk.

Journalist Matt Taibbi reported on GEC’s alleged efforts to pressure action from Twitter in the latest edition of the Twitter Files, released on Tuesday. The alleged pressure came about during President Donald Trump’s administration.

“By 2020, Twitter was struggling with the problem of public and private agencies bypassing them and going straight to the media with lists of suspect accounts,” Taibbi tweeted. “In February, 2020, as COVID broke out, the Global Engagement Center – a fledgling analytic/intelligence arms of the State Department – went to the media with a report called, ‘Russian Disinformation Apparatus Taking Advantage of Coronavirus Concerns.'”

Taibbi said GEC flagged content on Twitter as “Russian personas and proxies” if they exhibited certain online behavior, such as claiming the coronavirus is an engineered bioweapon, blaming the Wuhan Institute of Virology for the virus outbreak or attributing the appearance of the virus to the CIA.

The State Department office also flagged tweets from accounts that shared the news that Twitter had banned the publication Zero Hedge.

Taibbi noted that reports by the GEC lead to articles raising concerns about Russian, Chinese and Iranian-linked disinformation campaigns on social media platforms, including Twitter. 

In one February 2020 article, AFP wrote:

State Department officials tasked with combatting Russian disinformation told AFP that false personas are being used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advance Russian talking points in multiple languages.

“When the State Department/GEC – remember this was 2020, during the Trump administration – wanted to publicize a list of 5,500 accounts it claimed would ‘amplify Chinese propaganda and disinformation’ about COVID, Twitter analysts were beside themselves,” Taibbi tweeted. “The GEC report appeared based on DHS data circulated earlier that week, and included accounts that followed ‘two or more’ Chinese diplomatic accounts. They reportedly ended up with a list ‘nearly 250,000’ names long, and included Canadian officials and a CNN account.”

Musk amplified that particular portion of Taibbi’s thread, tweeting, “US govt agency demanded suspension of 250k accounts, including journalists & Canadian officials!”

Taibbi continued his thread, tweeting, “Roth saw GEC’s move as an attempt by the GEC to use intel from other agencies to ‘insert themselves’ into the content moderation club that included Twitter, Facebook, the FBI, DHS, and others.” Taibbi included a May 6, 2020 email in which Roth said:

GEC’s blitz on these issues is at least in part an attempt to insert themselves into the conversations we’ve had with DHS, FBI, ODNI, and others. Per Facebook, they’ve explicitly requested to participate in those conversations. Obviously, State is a significant voice and one we don’t want to neglect; but I do want us to continue to maintain a distinction between the highly trusted, valued relationships we’ve built over years with entities with considerable expertise and authority in these domains, and other parts of USG that may engage on these questions from time to time (sometimes in more political ways than others). 

While previous tranches of the “Twitter Files” showed cooperative relationships between Twitter and U.S. government entities like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, Taibbi said Twitter’s internal team was more opposed to input from GEC due to what he described as partisan reasoning.

“Unlike the DHS and FBI, which were ‘apolitical,’ as Roth put it, the GEC was ‘political,’ which in Twitter-ese appeared to be partisan code,” Taibbi wrote.

“‘I think they thought the FBI was less Trumpy,’ is how one former DOD official put it,” Taibbi added.

Taibbi shared screenshots of additional Twitter emails describing how Twitter received tips from the NSA, FBI, DHS, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and various states on accounts or tweets they felt warranted content moderation actions by the platform.

“Twitter honored almost everyone else’s requests, even those from GEC – including a decision to ban accounts like @RebelProtests and @BricsMedia because GEC identified them as ‘GRU-controlled’ and linked ‘to the Russian government,’ respectively,” Taibbi tweeted.

Taibbi showed a screenshot of another Oct. 1, 2020 email in which a former CIA staffer-turned Twitter employee appeared to describe a growing pressure to act against Twitter accounts flagged by government agencies. The Twitter employee wrote:

I think that our window on that is closing, given that government partners are becoming more aggressive on attribution and reporting on it. I’m going to go ahead with suspension and marking the domain as UNSAFE. 

“The GEC requests were what a former CIA staffer working at Twitter was referring to, when he said, ‘Our window on that is closing,’ meaning they [sic] days when Twitter could say no to serious requests were over,” Taibbi tweeted.