Twitter colluded with Pentagon to run network of fake accounts around the world

Twitter worked with the Pentagon to promote fake accounts in the Middle East which praised U.S. policy, it has emerged – despite the social media company insisting that it made ‘concerted efforts’ to ‘detect and thwart government-backed platform manipulation’.

The collusion spanned at least four years, from 2017 to 2020, and saw top Twitter executives liaise with military intelligence on ‘a covert online PsyOp campaign’ – promoting accounts including one that claimed the U.S. drone bombings in Yemen killed only terrorists.

The revelations were made by Lee Fang, who on Tuesday published the eighth installment of what is termed the Twitter Files.

The Pentagon worked with Twitter to promote accounts tweeting pro-U.S. content in the Middle East

Fang, a San Francisco-based journalist who writes for The Intercept, is following on from stories published by reporters Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss since the beginning of the month.

‘Despite promises to shut down covert state-run propaganda networks, Twitter docs show that the social media giant directly assisted the U.S. military’s influence operations,’ Fang wrote.

‘Behind the scenes, Twitter gave approval & special protection to the U.S. military’s online psychological influence ops. 

‘Despite knowledge that Pentagon propaganda accounts used covert identities, Twitter did not suspend many for around 2 years or more. Some remain active.’

Fang pointed to emails showing that the cooperation with the Pentagon began at least five years ago.

An official from U.S. Central Command, CENTCOM, wrote to Twitter executives on July 26, 2017.

Nathaniel Kahler asked the executive, on the public policy team, to approve the verification of one account and ‘whitelist’ a list of Arab-language accounts ‘we use to amplify certain messages.’

Kahler wrote: ‘We’ve got some accounts that are not indexing on hashtags — perhaps they were flagged as bots. 

‘A few of these had built a real following and we hope to salvage.’ 

Kahler added that he was happy to provide more paperwork from his office or SOCOM, the acronym for the U.S. Special Operations Command.

At the time, according to sources who spoke to The Intercept, Twitter was working to flag as spam any accounts that engaged with extremists, in particular those affiliated with the Islamic State.   

Kahler sent a spreadsheet to the Twitter team with 52 accounts, and asked for ‘priority service’.

Among the accounts singled out for preferential treatment was the since-deleted @yemencurrent, which claimed that U.S. drone strikes were ‘accurate’ and killed terrorists, not civilians.

The account also praised the U.S. and Saudi-backed assault on Houthi rebels in that country.

Other accounts supported U.S.-backed armed groups in Syria, and promoted anti-Iran messages in Iraq – another discussed legal issues in Kuwait, Fang reported.

On the same day that Kahler sent his request, Twitter engineers discussed setting up a separate tag for the accounts – a move Twitter insiders told Fang was highly unusual.

Kahler told Twitter the accounts would all be ‘USG-attributed, Arabic-language accounts tweeting on relevant security issues’ – but many of the accounts did not in fact mention that they were being run by the U.S. government.

At least one of the accounts, @mktashif, now deleted, was a ‘deep fake’, with a computer-generated profile picture and AI-manufactured content.

Another account, @althughur, also now deleted, posted anti-Iran and anti-ISIS content focused on an Iraqi audience, The Intercept reported.

The account initially declared its CENTCOM link, but then switched to an Arabic phrase meaning ‘Euphrates pulse.’

The former Twitter employee told The Intercept that they were surprised to learn of the Defense Department’s shifting tactics. 

‘It sounds like DOD was doing something shady and definitely not in line with what they had presented to us at the time,’ they said.

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