Internal Twitter Records Show FBI Questioned Twitter on State Propaganda
Internal Twitter Records Show FBI Questioned Twitter on State Propaganda

By Melanie Sun

Independent journalist Matt Taibbi published a supplemental thread to Part 6 of the “Twitter Files” on Sunday, bringing to light documented exchanges between the FBI and Twitter’s executive discussing the topic of state actors on the social media platform.

In July 2020, an FBI agent with the San Francisco office told the head of Twitter’s disbanded global trust and safety council Yoel Roth that the company could expect questioning from the Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF), an inter-agency group that deals with cyber threats.

According to Taibbi, who has been given access to Twitter’s internal communications by the company’s new CEO Elon Musk for the sake of transparency and free speech, the FBI sent Twitter a set of follow-up questions after Twitter’s June 20 briefing to the DHS, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and FBI on election security. Company representatives testified that Twitter “had not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors” on the platform.

In the follow-up questions, the FBI sought clarification on Twitter’s views of the state-media online landscape, and asked for the company to answer “some questions about your analysis and conclusions.”

The FBI then referenced public articles it said “indicate state media actors are prolific users of social media,” adding that this “seems in contrast to your own analysis as we documented it at the time of our discussion.”

Taibbi, who just published Part 6 of the “Twitter Files” on Friday, revealed how the FBI and a web of other private and government-affiliated actors were able to direct staff at Twitter to suppress information they did not want on the platform, expressing concern over the FBI’s probing of Twitter’s views about state actor activities on the platform.

“One would think that would be good news. The agencies seemed to feel otherwise,” Taibbi said of Twitter’s June testimony.

San Francisco FBI agent Elvis Chan wrote in explaining the inquiry from the United States Intelligence Community (USIC): “There was quite a bit of discussion within the USIC to get clarifications from your company.”

Roth, in internal deliberations about the FBI request with other company executives, acknowledged: “There’s a big discussion to be had about state-controlled media, which will be impacted by the label launch later this month.” But he noted he was not “comfortable with the Bureau (and by extension the IC) demanding written answers.”

It’s not clear whether or not Roth expressed concern when, as revealed in Part 1 of the “Twitter files,” staff at Twitter in 2020 acted upon the requests to remove content from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign, and in Part 1, when former FBI official James Baker influenced Twitter executives to suppress the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election.

Upon further consideration of the FBI’s request, Roth told his colleagues in a second message that the questioning was “flawed” because “we’ve been clear that official state propaganda is definitely a thing on Twitter.”

“In our June 2020 briefing, we did not indicate that we ‘had not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors on your platform,’” Roth wrote to his colleagues. “I re-reviewed by notes from that briefing, and there’s a specific item calling out official propaganda outlets as a major factor. And in multiple follow-ups with Elvis and [redacted], we’ve been clear that official state propaganda is definitely a thing on Twitter, but that it’s different in terms of how we handle it than clandestine fake accounts.”

He then suggested to management that he immediately call the FBI to clarify the statement “that may have been fundamentally misunderstood.”

Ayatollah Khamenei on Twitter @khamenei_ir in January 2021. (Screenshot/Twitter)

New Policy

Twitter in August 2020 initiated a new policy to label the accounts of state-affiliated media outlets, their senior staff, and some key government officials. Accounts marked as such included Russia’s Sputnik, RT, and China’s Xinhua News, according to a Twitter spokesman. The company did not provide a full list of entities but confirmed there were no U.S. media outlets on the list.

“We believe that people have the right to know when a media account is affiliated directly or indirectly with a state actor,” Twitter said in its blog at the time. It added it will also stop amplifying these accounts or their tweets through its recommendation systems.

Twitter said at the time that it considered state-affiliated media those where the state exercises editorial control through financial resources or political pressure, or control over production and distribution. However, it said that state-financed media outlets with editorial independence, such as National Public Radio in the United States, or the BBC in the United Kingdom, would not be labeled.

Taibbi’s supplemental thread comes after America First Legal obtained documents revealing that the Biden administration had editorial access to Twitter through a secret portal, which allowed agents of the U.S. government to censor COVID-19 information it did not want to gain public attention.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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