Twitter has allowed the Defense Department to use the social media platform to carry out a covert online propaganda and influence campaign for at least the last five years, the latest “Twitter Files” revealed Tuesday.

At the behest of the US military, the social media giant verified and “whitelisted” accounts affiliated with US Central Command in a bid to shape public opinion in countries including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait.

The campaign was uncovered by reporter Lee Fang of The Intercept, who said that he was allowed to make unrestricted requests for internal Twitter documents over three days last week.  

Twitter executives have long claimed that the company targets and deletes secretly operated government accounts that try to spread favorable geopolitical narratives. 

The US-backed accounts, which shared government-generated news items and memes, initially were openly affiliated with Washington and tweeted in Arabic. At some point, however, the Pentagon concealed the accounts’ true affiliations.

LEE FANG
Lee Fang said he was allowed to make unrestricted requests for internal Twitter documents over three days last week.  
Lee Fang/Twitter

However, Twitter went against stated company policy and allowed the accounts to post messages rather than zapping them.

The first known reference to the campaign appears in a July 2017 email from a CENTCOM official to a Twitter representative requesting approval for the verification of one account and the whitelisting of 52 Arab-language accounts that the official said were used to “amplify certain messages.” 

“We’ve got some accounts that are not indexing on hashtags — perhaps they were flagged as bots,” wrote Nathaniel Kahler, the CENTCOM official. “A few of these had built a real following and we hope to salvage.”

Ex-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey addresses students during a town hall.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has publicly stated he takes “full blame” for the social platform’s shortcomings as the Twitter Files have come to light.
REUTERS

Those benefits reportedly included invulnerability to bots that flag accounts for spam or abuse, a practice which decreases the visibility of the account’s tweets and may lead to its suspension. 

One of the accounts Kahler flagged to Twitter for whitelisting, @mktashif, was identified earlier this year by researchers affiliated with the Stanford Internet Observatory as one of thousands suspected of being part of a state-run influence operation that used human faces generated by artificial intelligence. 

The @mktashif account initially noted that it was affiliated with CENTCOM but the disclosure was deleted at some point and the profile photo changed to an artificially generated face. The bio for the account, translated from Arabic, read, “dedicated to serving Iraqis and Arabs,” according to the Intercept, and it frequently posted tweets denouncing Iran, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and other US adversaries before it was suspended earlier this year. 

“It sounds like DOD was doing something shady and definitely not in line with what they had presented to us at the time,” a former Twitter employee told the Intercept. 

Emails from 2020 show that Twitter and Facebook execs were invited by Pentagon officials to attend classified briefings in a sensitive compartmented information facility, or a SCIF, used for only the most highly sensitive meetings. It appears the meetings may have involved discussions on ways for the government to hide their “inauthentic activity” on social media. 

“Facebook have had a series of 1:1 conversations between their senior legal leadership and DOD’s [general counsel] re: inauthentic activity,” wrote former Twitter head of trust and safety Yoel Roth, in an email obtained by the Intercept. “Per [Facebook],” continued Roth, “DOD have indicated a strong desire to work with us to remove the activity — but are now refusing to discuss additional details or steps outside of a classified conversation.”

Pentagon
The Pentagon concealed the Twitter accounts’ true affiliations.
AFP via Getty Images

Stacia Cardille, then a Twitter attorney, noted in another email that the Pentagon may want to label its clandestine social media activities as classified “to obfuscate their activity in this space, and that this may represent an overclassification to avoid embarrassment.”

Then-Twitter deputy general counsel Jim Baker blasted the government in an email, writing that the Pentagon appeared to have used “poor tradecraft” in setting up the web of accounts. Baker guessed that the secret meetings were being organized because “DoD might want to give us a timetable for shutting them down in a more prolonged way that will not compromise any ongoing operations or reveal their connections to DoD.”

Lisa Roman, a top Twitter public policy official, also noted in a May 2020 email to a Pentagon lawyer that accounts that had not been explicitly provided to Twitter by the Pentagon – “may violate our Rules.”  An attached list of accounts tweeted in both Russian and Arabic about human rights violations committed by ISIS, while not disclosing their US-government affiliation, according to the Intercept. 

Clandestine psychological operations, such as the practice of running fake social media accounts pumping out propaganda, was legally affirmed in Section 1631 of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act in an effort to counter disinformation campaigns by Russia, China, and other foreign threats.



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