Twitter Files Part 12: Twitter and the FBI “Belly Button”

Adam SchiffAFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Part 12 of the what has been known as the Twitter Files, was released in a series of tweets by Independent Journalist Matt Talibbi. This batch detailed how the FBI became the “belly button” of the platform.

In February 2020, near the beginning of the COVID outbreak, the Global Engagement Center, which is the analytic/intelligence arm of the State Department, went to the media with a report that claimed that “Russian Disinformation Apparatus Taking Advantage of Coronavirus Concerns” and that Russia accounts were using a “disinformation campaign that is intented for a global audience”.

The GEC flagged accounts as “Russian personas and proxies” based on criteria like, “Describing the Coronavirus as an engineered bioweapon,” and blamed “research conducted at the Wuhan institute,” and “attributing the appearance of the virus to the CIA.”

But they didn’t just flag accounts that had any credible ties to Russia. They also flagged the accounts of those that were sharing stories such as the belief that COVID escaped from the lab in Wuhan.

The State Department pushed headlines like “Russia-linked disinformation campaign led to coronavirus alarm, US says”.

Twitter was constantly getting requests from multiple federal departments including the FBI, DHS, HHS, NSA, State Department, Senate Intel Committee and even the Treasury, but then also bypassing them and feeding the media unverified stories that the claims that COVID escaped from the lab in Wuhan was coming from Russian propaganda accounts and that Twitter wasn’t doing anything about it.

At the beginning Twitter wasn’t as tough because they didn’t see the coordinated effort of a Russian propaganda campaign like the FBI was claiming. But as time went on, and the pressure became more severe, they started getting tougher and suspending more accounts.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter executives were orginally united in their opposition to the GEC’s inclusion because of the political motivation of the department and “The GEC’s mandate for offensive IO (intelligence oversight) to promote American interests”.

The FBI eventually argued for a compromise solution where other USG agencies could participate in the “industry” calls, but the FBI and DHS would act as the sole “conduits.” Yoel Roth reached out to Elvis Chain from the FBI about his concerns of letting the GEC in and the organization leaking information to the media, but was reassured that it would be a “one-way” channel, and that the “State/GEC, NSA, and CIA have expressed interest in being allowed on in listen mode only.”

“BELLY BUTTON” “We can give you everything we’re seeing from the FBI and USIC agencies,” Chan explained, but the DHS agency CISA “will know what’s going on in each state.” Chan then went on to ask if industry could “rely on the FBI to be the belly button of the USG.”

They eventually settled on an industry call through Signal where Chan circulated the prviate numbers of each of the company’s chief moderation officers through a Word Doc that was marked “Signal Phone Numbers,” subject-lined, “List of Numbers.”

Twitter continued to get requests from multiple government bodies including HHS, FBI, DHS, treasury and many more.

The Senate Intel Committee (SSCI) needed reassurance that Twitter was following the FBI’s orders. Twitter Executives informed them that they zapped five accounts due to the tip from the FBI.

They were particurarly concerned with the accounts of the people that they didn’t like and pressured Twitter to ban those accounts.

House Intel Chief Adam Schiff asked Twitter to ban the account of journalist Paul Sperry. Twitter’s reponse to these requests was originally “WE DON’T DO THIS” but Sperry’s account was later suspended anyways.

Twitter did honor almost everyone else’s requests, including requests from the GEC to ban accounts that the GEC identified as “GRU-controlled” and that were “linked to the Russian government”.

The Federal government continued to get more and more aggressive and the window for Twitter to refuse to follow the “requests” of the FBI or at least wait for evidence, closed.

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