by Matt Taibbi
From the Twitter Files, a story about media, that also sketches the origins of Twitter’s surrender to the intelligence community:
1.THREAD: The Twitter Files
How Twitter Let the Intelligence Community In
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) January 3, 2023
Twitter through the end of August, 2017 was on nobody’s radar as a key actor in the Trump-Russia “foreign influence” scandal.
By the second week in October — six weeks later — the company was being raked over the coals in the press as “one of Russia’s most potent weapons in its efforts to promote Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton,” with Clinton herself adding:
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.
What happened in those six weeks? Answering that question is a key to understanding the content moderation phenomenon. In this period, crucial in the company’s history, a pattern was established. Threats from Congress came first, then a rush of bad headlines (inspired by leaks from congressional committees, and finally a series of moderation demands coming from the outside. Once the company acceded, the cycle repeated.
The documents lay out the scheme. You can see how the Russian cyber-threat was essentially conjured into being, with political and media pressure serving as the engine inflating something Twitter believed was negligible and uncoordinated to massive dimensions.
“KEEP PRODUCING MATERIAL”
The timeline started when a fellow tech titan, Facebook, decided in late August 2017 to suspend 300 accounts with “suspected Russian origin.” The move appeared to irritate some Twitter insiders, as Facebook not only shared data with Twitter, but with the Senate Intelligence Committee, where ranking Democrat and Virginia Senator Mark Warner was on an all-out hunt for Russian meddlers.
Twitter’s leaders, anxious to avoid being “dragged into another pitch for an industry wide solution,” as one senior lawyer put it, appeared peeved that Facebook pulled them into the congressional muck. Yet they mistakenly believed the company could still side-step the political/PR minefield, and “keep the focus on FB,” mainly because they were all sure there hadn’t been a big Russia problem on their network:
“No larger patterns.”
“We did not see a big correlation.”
“FB may take action on hundreds of accounts, and we may take action on ~25.”
As the autumn progressed, however, Twitter’s leaders began to realize the Russia thing might hit them no matter what.
An early hint came in a September 8, 2017 piece in the New York Times called “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.”
This was of many stories that helped the Times win a Pulitzer Prize for exploring “Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign.” Author Scott Shane explained that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter had been “turned into engines of deception and propaganda.” On Twitter specifically, the Times in conjunction with the cybersecurity group FireEye claimed, “Russian fingerprints are on hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages,” adding:
The fakery may have added only modestly to the din of genuine American voices in the pre-election melee, but it helped fuel a fire of anger and suspicion in a polarized country.
Twitter employees seemed puzzled by the FireEye piece, but didn’t really worry until the appearance of stories hinting they were being uncooperative with Washington.
“Hi guys,” wrote Public Policy VP Colin Crowell on September 23, 2017. “Just passing along for awareness the writeup here from the WashPost today on potential legislation (or new FEC regulations) that may affect our political advertising.”
The article, “Facebook’s openness on Russia questioned by congressional investigators,” mostly focused on Facebook, but like the Times piece included a few shots across Twitter’s bow. It noted congressional “investigators also are pushing for fuller answers from Google and Twitter, both of which may have been targets of Russian propaganda efforts.”
Later that month, Twitter staff, led by Crowell, met with Warner and his staff, shared what the company believed to be true, that they had no coordinated Russian interference issue on their platform.
Not only did Warner not like this answer, he gave Twitter a fierce media paper-training, holding an instant press conference to voice his displeasure.
“Their response was, frankly, inadequate on almost every level,” Warner told reporters. Reuters added that Warner said the Twitter briefing was “mostly derivative of a presentation earlier this month given by Facebook,” and “lacked thoroughness.”
The Warner presser hit Twitter like a bomb. Gallows humor filled inboxes.
“Well these are good headlines…” joked a communications officer, passing along an email with the subject line, INADEQUATE ON EVERY LEVEL.
“#Irony,” mused Crowell, upon receipt (the day after the presser) of an e-circular from Warner’s re-election campaign, asking for “$5 or whatever you can spare,” to “help Mark hit his quarterly fundraising goal.”
In a circular to other senior executives about his meeting with Warner, Crowell explained that Warner “has political incentive to keep this issue at top of the news, maintain pressure on us and rest of industry to keep producing material for them.” He added that although Warner’s public posture was contentious, the private atmosphere was more of a “collaborative spirit.”
He also said congressional Democrats were “taking cues from Hillary Clinton,” who that same week told a Stanford audience she was the victim of a “virtual Watergate.”
Crowell explained further that the company was being “hurt” by outside academics and researchers, who “tap our API to pull together flawed reports painting the bot/Russian troll problem as a significant presence on Twitter.” He added:
It was evident in the room with staff investigators that these researchers had already briefed the committees and asserted Twitter is a major problem. These studies are also cited in recent media stories.
There are mentions throughout Twitter’s email record that fall of studies by a range of researchers “tapping” the data Twitter and Facebook shared with Congress. The company took special note of former FBI Counterintelligence agent Clint Watts, whose work on the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s “Hamilton 68” project gave reporters a public “dashboard” for tracking a “Russian Disinformation on Twitter.” Its web page featured a crude illustration of Vladimir Putin tossing bunches of red Twitter symbols into the ether:
Part of the reason Twitter hired Burson-Marsteller was because the company boasted a stable of former government officials — including many from the Obama and Clinton administrations — who had relationships with the Democratic Party’s loudest Russia hawks. Burson even sent over a “third parties” outreach document, detailing which members of their team had contacts with Strobe Talbott, Madeleine Albright, Richard Clarke, and former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, among others.
Those documents aren’t scandalous, but they’re valuable in a “how the world works” sense. Hit with a firestorm of negative press, coming mainly from Democratic Party partisans (along with a few Republicans), Twitter was able to turn down the heat a tiny bit by spending $50,000 a month on a contract with consultants and lobbyists close to their accusers.
A tiny bit wouldn’t be enough, however.
“NO EVIDENCE OF A COORDINATED APPROACH”
In a growing panic over its PR problems, Twitter formed a “Russia Task Force” to investigate itself. Despite the pressure to produce “material,” reports coming in from the Task Force in the coming weeks kept coming back snake eyes:
October 13: “We have found suspicious accounts which demonstrate our investigation strategy is working, however we see no evidence of a coordinated approach, all of the accounts found seem to be lone-wolf type activity (different timing, spend, targeting, <$10k in ad spend).”
October 16: “First phase of analysis finished over weekend via manual review of ~700 accounts. Found ~15 suspicious accounts (i.e. state targeting, pro trump), but no relationship to each other, mostly SMB, and low total spend (<$10k).”
October 18: “First round of RU investigation shared with legal/comms/PP yesterday. The results suggest 15 high risk accounts, 3 of which have connections with Russia, although 2 are RT.”
October 23: “Finished with investigation… Completed 2500 full manual account reviews, we think this is exhaustive analysis… We’ve identified 32 suspicious accounts and only 17 of those are connected with Russia, only 2 of those have significant spend, one of which is Russia Today, and the remaining are <$10k in spend…”
Analysts at Twitter were coming to the conclusion that outsiders were using a kind of academic magic trick to conjure the Russian threat. Researchers took low-engagement, “spammy” accounts with vague indicia pointing to Russia (for instance, retweet activity), and identified them as not only Russian, but specifically as creations of the media’s favorite villain, the Internet Research Agency of “Putin’s chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Twitter went along, in many cases to make a temporary press problem go away. In the case of the Buzzfeed story, for instance, Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth explained:
Watch the Birdie, watch him Fly, AND See the Democrat Donkey, fall off the Cliff and Die