Standing Up For America

Twitter and the FBI

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Matt Taibbi @mtaibbi

On Friday, I posted a series of exchanges between Twitter and the FBI. One that required a bit too much explaining was left out. But it’s an important document, because it clearly demonstrates that Twitter will not only take requests from the government, it will even act quickly to align its analyses with its “partners.”

In the summer of 2020, the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF*) sent a series of written questions to Trust and Safety Chief Yoel Roth by way of FBI Agent Elvis Chan and the San Francisco field office. The exchange was forwarded to Twitter on July 14, 2020, in reference to a prior June, 2020 “DHS/ODNI/FBI/Industry” briefing, which Twitter and perhaps other companies attended.

The FITF is a multi-agency task force created by Christopher Wray in 2017 that includes the FBI, DHS, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It says its mission is “to identify and counteract malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States. The photo array at the top of this page — from a larger, perfectly diverse collection of officials, all in the same suit — is from the FITF’s “protected voices” initiative. This is a series of videos designed to help “political campaigns, companies, and individuals” protect against ransomware, email compromise, and other problems.

The task force emphasizes “private sector partnerships” with “U.S. technology companies,” with whom they engage in “threat indicator sharing.” Twitter is obviously one of those companies.

In the July, 2020 letter agent Chan forwarded to Roth at Twitter, the FITF appeared miffed by something they felt they heard in the June “industry” briefing. They demanded an explanation for Twitter’s apparent assertion that it “had not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors on your platform.”

This didn’t sit right with the task force. To express its displeasure, the FITF sent the aforementioned questions. There were many, but examples include:

In what ways and by what measures do you see official propaganda actors as less active than other groups on your platform?

What groups are you comparing to official propaganda actors?

What quantitative metrics do you use to judge volume of activity on your platform? On what scale? Can you provide these metrics?”

An interesting part is at the bottom of this letter, where the FITF included a bibliography of sorts, with articles from the Oxford Internet Institute, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Mercator Institute for China Studies, even the Wall Street Journal.

It’s hard to read this document and not glean that the FITF was citing the conclusions of outside think tanks and even the Journal to counter an apparent implication by Twitter that they “had not observed much recent activity” by foreign actors. This is especially bizarre because some of those papers cited intelligence reports as their sources. The Journal piece, for instance, wrote:

Meanwhile, RT, the Russian state news organization that federal intelligence officials call “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet,” uses Google’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as the main distributors of its content.

That same article also quoted former ambassador to Russia and ubiquitous Twitter personality Michael McFaul:

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is now a political-science professor at Stanford University, said RT is “an instrument of Kremlin foreign policy and should be thought of that way.”

If one didn’t know any better, one would conclude from this passage that the foreign-influence assertion at least in this case was being daisy-chained into existence: public sources cite anonymous official sources, then official sources cite the public sources in their communications with platforms like Twitter. An information loop, pooh-poohing any implication that foreign influence is not a threat, or at least a recent threat.

Twitter appeared horrified that the government got the impression they didn’t believe they were seeing much foreign activity. Roth, upon receipt of the questionnaire, sent a letter on July 15, 2020 to other company executives:

Hi team, 

The questions we received are attached. I’m frankly perplexed by the requests here, which seem more like something we’d get from a congressional committee than the Bureau. There’s a big discussion to be had about state-controlled media, which will be impacted by the label launch later this month — but I’m not particularly comfortable with the Bureau (and by extension the IC) demanding written answers here. What’s your perspective on how best to navigate?

The idea that questions from the Bureau “by extension” represent the thoughts of the intelligence community is of course interesting, given that many agencies are barred from involving themselves in domestic intelligence-gathering. Roth later added to his thoughts:

In rereading the doc, the entire premise seems flawed. In our June 2020 briefing, we did not indicate that we “had not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors on your platform.” I re-reviewed my notes from that briefing, and there’s a specific item calling out official propaganda outlets as a major factor. And in multiple follow-ups… we’ve been clear that official state propaganda is definitely a thing on Twitter…

My recommendation is to get on the phone with Elvis ASAP and try to straighten this out. I’m concerned that there’s swirl somewhere in the IC about a statement that may have been fundamentally misunderstood…

Seeing Roth act so quickly in response to the possibility of a “swirl” forming in the “IC” should put to rest any questions about who is subservient to whom in this relationship.

The internal responses ratified Roth’s strategy of getting back on the phone with the FBI right away and reiterating that state propaganda is definitely a thing on Twitter. (Roth added these italics in his own document).

Incidentally, the word “swirl” popped up more than once in Twitter Files documents. In another exchange in 2020, a communications official told Vijaya Gadde, the head of legal, policy, and trust at Twitter, that there was a “swirl” developing in media around their handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story. Gadde replied, on October 20th, 2020:

Swirl from the left or the right?

It’s possible that some of the accounts in the various lists we’ve seen passed to Twitter were indeed identified by agencies like the FBI as having foreign, coordinated origin. None of the documents appear to show the agency sharing that information with Twitter, at least not yet.

Instead, what we see is the same circular pattern. Information leaves Twitter for the FBI or DOJ via the back end, goes through an analytical process of some kind at the government, then returns to Twitter in the form of moderation requests. What we’ve seen so far are mostly small-engagement accounts, belonging to ordinary Americans. It makes sense that there would be “malign foreign actors” on Twitter, but what’s been visible in our searches, mostly, is policing of more mundane accounts.

The wider issue of foreign “malign” threat remains an important talking point for all parties. How significant that threat is is hard to say, but certainly this exchange suggests Twitter’s “partners” and “stakeholders” in government are not interested in hearing any platform say — even if the statement was misunderstood — that it has “not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors.” One would think that would be welcome news. Apparently not.

*The Friday thread mistakenly referred to the FTIF. It is the the FITF, or Foreign Influence Task Force.