Twitter Files Part 11: How the ‘PR crisis’ following 2016 election pressured company to embrace intel community

On Tuesday, Independent Journalist Matt Taibii released part 11 of what has been dubbed “The Twitter Files”.

In a series of Tweets, Taibii reported about the “PR crisis” following the 2016 election when Democrats accused the platform of not taking action against Russian influence on the platform, while Facebook was suspending around 300 accounts.

Twitter Executives claimed that they didn’t see a pattern of Russian influence, at least to the scale that the intelligence community was claiming took place during the 2016 election. Twitter did suspend 22 accounts for possible Russian influence but no where close to the 300 accounts that Facebook suspended.

The intelligence community was furious with Twitter executives for not taking more action. Ranking Intelligence Committee Democrat Senator Senator Mark Warner of Virginia held a press conference and immediately denounced Twitter’s report as “frankly inadequate on every level.”

Public Policy VP Colin Crowell wrote after his meeting with congressional leaders that “Warner has political incentive to keep this issue at top of the news, maintain pressure on us and rest of industry to keep producing material for them” and added that Democrats were taking cues from Hillary Clinton who claimed that week that “It’s time for Twitter to stop dragging its heels and live up to the fact that its platform is being used as a tool for cyber-warfare.”

Twitter even started their own task force to self investigate their platform. They used data shared from counterparts at Facebook, that were supposedly centered around accounts tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) but that task force found no evidence of coordinated influence despite the FBI’s claims. “No evidence of a coordinated approach, all of the accounts found seem to be lone-wolf type activity (different timing, spend, targeting, <$10k in ad spend).”

Even using a different model which should have allowed them to catch a lot more turned up very little. After investigating 2500 accounts mannually they found just “32 suspicious accounts and only 17 of those are connected with Russia, only 2 of those have significant spend one of which is Russia Today…remaining <$10k in spend.” They found “only 2” significant accounts, “one of which is Russia Today,”that was based on the same data that later inspired panic headlines like “Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone”.

Despite Twitter finding nothing to back up the claims coming from the intelligence community, the intelligence community wasn’t happy and the pressure on Twitter to get tougher on Russian influence got even worse.

Claims started going around that “Twitter deleted data potentially crucial to Russia probes” which is what Politico claimed weeks after Senator Warner’s press conference.

“Were Twitter a contractor for the FSB… they could not have built a more effective disinformation platform,” Johns Hopkins Professor (and Intel Committee “expert”) Thomas Rid told Politico.

Twitter eventually began to change it’s tune about how big the problem was as pressure against the platform continued to grow. This included legislation that congress was considering that would have been damaging to the Big Tech platforms such as Twitter.

Twitter leaders were told by Senate staff that “Sen Warner feels like tech industry was in denial for months.” Added an Intel staffer: “Big interest in Politico article about deleted accounts.”

Twitter then pledged to work with the intelligence community on the proposed legislation and planned to change their ads policy but that still wasn’t enough. Congress continued to ratchet up pressure on the platform.

Reports of Russian influence on the platform continued to grow. “SENATE INTEL COMMITTEE IS ASKING… POSSIBLE TO WHIP SOMETHING TOGETHER?” Still, when the Buzzfeed piece came out, the Senate asked for “a write up of what happened.” Twitter soon started apologizing for the same accounts they told the Senate were not a problem.

When it was discovered that the pressure campaign worked on Twitter the reports kept coming in that Twitter was allowing Russian influence on their platform and ended up completely caving to the FBI’s demands.

The FBI continues to remain defiant over their bully tactics. In December the FBI released a statement claiming that “The correspondence between the FBI and Twitter show nothing more than examples of our traditional, longstanding and ongoing federal government and private sector engagements, which involve numerous companies over multiple sectors and industries. As evidenced in the correspondence, the FBI provides critical information to the private sector in an effort to allow them to protect themselves and their customers… It is unfortunate that conspiracy theorists and others are feeding the American public misinformation with the sole purpose of attempting to discredit the agency.”

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