The latest installment of the Twitter Files revealed the FBI’s desire for Twitter to rely on it to be the belly button of the U.S. government (USG). The first Twitter Files installment of 2023 revealed shared the events that led up to the intelligence community’s influence on Twitter. Following that installment, journalist Matt Taibbi released another, which revealed the Global Engagement Center’s (GEC) role.
Taibbi described the GEC as “a fledgling analytic/intelligence arms of the State Department,” and screenshots revealed how this new entity would go directly to the media. In one such instance, a report titled, Russian Disinformation Apparatus Taking Advantage of Coronavirus Concerns, was released, which wrecked a bit of havoc for Twitter.
1.THREAD: The Twitter Files
Twitter and the FBI “Belly Button” pic.twitter.com/nfOGQGlvUM
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) January 3, 2023
Twitter’s then Trust and Safety head, Yoel Roth, pointed out the motives of Clemson’s Media Forensic Hub when it complained that Twitter hadn’t “made a Russia attribution” in some time.
Roth told researchers like Clemson that Twitter would be happy to work directly with them instead of the media. He was unsuccessful. Simultaneously, Twitter was trying to reduce the number of agencies that had access to Roth. Twitter’s then-policy director, Carlos Monje, pointed out that once Twitter gave these agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, access to Roth.
“If these folks are like House Homeland Committee and DHS, once we give them direct contact with Yoel, they will want to come back to him again and again,” Monje said.
Taibbi noted that the GEC report appeared to be based on DHS data that was circulated earlier that week. The data included accounts that followed two or more Chinese diplomatic accounts and ended up with a list “nearly 250,000” names long. The list included Canadian officials and a CNN account.
In an email, Roth said that the GEC attempted to insert itself into conversations Twitter had with several government agencies, including the FBI and DHS. The GEC began to agree to loop Twitter in before going public; however, the agency used a technique that trapped Twitter previously.
“The delta between when they share material and when they go to the press continues to be problematic,” a comms official wrote, adding that they primed the media to be “curios and inquisitive of this dynamic, too.”
This led to Twitter’s disputing a State Department claim that China coordinated coronavirus disinformation accounts. The FBI then informed Twitter that the GEC wanted to be included in their regular “industry call” between companies like Twitter and Facebook and the DHS and FBI. At first, Twitter didn’t want to go this route. Executives at Facebook and Google were united with Twitter in its opposition to the GEC’s inclusion.
“The GEC’s mandate for offensive IO to promote American interests. The relative lack of discretion and caution from senior GEC leadership in sharing reports/analysis based on shaky methodology. A limited track record of successful collaboration with industry.”
Roth noted that an actor such as GEC being introduced to a stable and trusted group of practitioners and experts, especially with the election heating up, posed major risks.
Roth added that another reason was that the DHS and FBI were “apolitical,” whereas the GEC was “political.”
“GEC has a track record of actively advancing specific ideological agendas (e.g., their work w/r/t Iran). We should not lose sight of this distinction,” Roth wrote.
The FBI argued for a compromise solution that would allow other U.S. government (USG) agencies to participate in the industry calls, with the FBI and DHS acting as sole conduits. When Roth reached out to FBI agent Elvis Chan with concerns, Chan reassured the Twitter executive that it would be a “one-way” channel and “State/GEC, NSA, and CIA have expressed interest in being allowed on in listen mode only.”
“We can give you everything we’re seeing from the FBI and USIC agencies,” Chan told Roth, adding that the DHS agency Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) “will know what’s going on in each state.” Chan then asked if the industry could “rely on the FBI to be the belly button of the USG.”
The group eventually chose Signal due to its operational security. Following that, Twitter began taking requests from various government bodies starting with the Senate Intel Committee (SSCI), which needed reassurance that Twitter was taking FBI direction.
Twitter also received various requests from officials wanting individuals they didn’t like to be banned from the platform. In the screenshot below, the office for Democrat and House Intel Committee chief Adam Schiff asked Twitter to ban journalist Paul Sperry.
At the time, Twitter refused. However, Sperry was later suspended. “No, this isn’t feasible/we don’t do this,” Twitter replied.
Twitter honored many of the requests, including those from the GEC, to ban accounts the GEC identified as “GRU-controlled” and linked “to the Russian government.”
A former CIA staffer working at Twitter called the GEC requests “Our window on that is closing,” which meant that the days Twitter could say no to serious requests were over. In the Twitter Files that were released earlier today, Taibbi noted that in public, Twitter would remove content at its “sole discretion.”
Privately, the platform would “off-board” anything that was “identified by the U.S. intelligence community as state-sponsored entity conducting cyber-operations.” That was in 2017. By 2020, agencies were flooding Twitter with “identifications” or users that it wanted Twitter to remove.
Taibbi pointed out that some reports were only a paragraph long and that Twitter would be forwarded an Excel document without further explanation. Twitter was also warned about the publicity surrounding a book written by former Ukraine prosecutor Viktor Shokhin, who alleged “corruption by the U.S. government” – specifically by Joe Biden.
Screenshots reveal that by mere weeks before the 2020 election, Twitter was so confused by the multiple streams of incoming requests that staffers had to ask the FBI which was which.
Taibbi noted that this led to the situation described in an earlier Twitter Files release by Michael Shellenberger on December 19, 2022.
In that release, it was revealed that Twitter was paid $3,415,323. Taibbi noted that Twitter wasn’t just paid but underpaid for the amount of work it did for the government.
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