February 6, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter kept online a network of accounts used by the U.S. military to advance its interests in the Middle East in response to a Pentagon request in 2017, according to internal company emails released Tuesday. to intercepta nonprofit publication.

One of Twitter’s counterterrorism divisions was aware of the arrangement but not others, five people familiar with the matter said. When it became known within the company, executives rushed to undo it. But people familiar with the matter said they were hesitant to publicly disclose the military-run Twitter account.

Some accounts have been deleted, but others have remained online for years. Twitter finally revealed its U.S. influence campaign this year.

This situation is unusual because Twitter typically deletes and publicly discloses government influence campaigns. Social media companies have taken a hard line against state-sponsored influence operations since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Russia misused Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to influence U.S. voters. But in this case, Twitter’s transparency efforts have been slow, and the company has shown respect to the U.S. government.

Internal documents released by The Intercept were provided by Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk. Mr. Musk has made the archives available to selected journalists to scrutinize the decisions of former company leaders. He did not respond to The New York Times’ request for access to the documents.

It was unclear whether Twitter would continue to showcase influence campaigns on its platform under Mr. Musk’s leadership. The billionaire fired many of the employees who worked on detecting foreign influence on Twitter and questioned the level of cooperation between the government and the company’s former management.

Musk did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command declined to comment for this story.

The situation began in 2017 when an official working with U.S. Central Command asked Twitter to verify some military accounts, according to internal company emails.

These accounts have been flagged by Twitter’s system that automatically detects terrorist content and are not easily found in searches. The Pentagon asked Twitter to “whitelist” the accounts, which would prevent automated tools from flagging them and make them more widely visible on the platform. Twitter’s counterterrorism team complied, two of the people said.

Twitter executives became aware of the situation when a member of the counterterrorism unit sought help from the broader security team to automatically whitelist U.S. government accounts, according to three people familiar with the discussions. Surprised by the request, the security team asked to review the accounts, the people said.

Twitter allows governments to run accounts on its platform as long as the accounts clearly state who is running them. Accounts masquerading as civilians are prohibited. Some of the accounts included in the Pentagon’s 2017 request were clearly marked as government-run, while others were not, according to three people involved in the discussions.

Twitter executives then removed some military accounts that were not clearly labeled, according to three people involved in the discussions.

But while the company regularly discloses other state-backed influence campaigns in its transparency reports, executives balk at the situation, people familiar with the matter said. They said some feared that they might violate national security laws by speaking out about canceling the campaign.

Years later, some Twitter executives said they had conversations with the Department of Defense about deleting all accounts and disclosing them, according to emails published by The Intercept.

“I think having a better understanding of what’s going on will help us make better decisions,” Jim Baker, Twitter’s lawyer at the time, wrote in an essay. 2020 emailHe added that the accounts may be linked to the military operations that are coming to an end and that “closing them all at once could jeopardize other operations.”

In August, Twitter announced it had removed multiple accounts promoting U.S. foreign policy interests abroad, the first time it disclosed such activity. Accounts associated with the campaign have also been removed from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Eric Schmidt with Ryan Mack Contribution report.



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