The Cradle has previously deconstructed the Pentagon’s online bot and troll operations targeting Iran. These wide-ranging efforts, over many years, sought to destabilize the Iranian government by disseminating and inciting negative sentiment against it, on a variety of social media platforms.
Their exposure led to the White House demanding an internal audit of all Department of Defense (DoD) “psychological operations online.” Ostensibly, this was triggered by high-level concerns that Washington’s “moral high ground” was potentially compromised by the “manipulation of audiences overseas.”
The audit was revealed in a Washington Post article, the details of which pointed to a very different rationale. One passage noted that representatives of Facebook and Twitter directly informed the Pentagon, repeatedly, over several years, that its psychological warfare efforts on their platforms had been had been detected and identified as such.
Weaponizing social media
Frustratingly, the focus wasn’t even that these operations were being conducted in the first place, but that the Pentagon got busted doing so.
For example, Facebook’s Director of Global Threat Disruption, David Agranovich, who spent six years at the Pentagon before serving as the US National Security Council’s Director for Intelligence, reportedly reached out to the DoD in the summer of 2020, warning his former colleagues that “if Facebook could sniff them out, so could US adversaries.”
“His point was, ‘Guys, you got caught. That’s a problem,’” an individual “familiar with the conversation” told the Washington Post.
The obvious takeout from this excerpt – unnoticed by any mainstream journalist at the time – was that Facebook and Twitter staffers actively welcome their platforms being weaponized in information warfare campaigns, as long as it’s the US intelligence community doing it, and they don’t get caught in flagrante.
Moreover, in the event they are compromised, those same social network luminaries readily provide intimate insight on how US spooks can improve their operational security, and better conceal their activities from foreign enemies. Unmentioned is that these “foes” include tens of millions of ordinary people who are the ultimate target of such malign initiatives, of which residents of West Asia are preponderant victims.
Internal emails and documents from Twitter, published by journalist Lee Fang, have now confirmed that Twitter executives not only approved of the Pentagon’s network of troll and bot accounts, but also provided significant internal protection for them through “whitelisting.”
This practice allowed these ‘superpower accounts’ to operate with impunity, despite breaking numerous platform rules and behaving egregiously. The “whitelist” status also effectively granted these accounts the algorithmic and amplificatory privileges of Twitter verification without a “blue check.”
As The Cradle previously reported, these accounts over many years sought to influence perceptions and behavior across West Asia, in particular Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. In many cases, users had “deepfake” profile photos – mocked up pictures of realistic human faces generated by artificial intelligence.
Target: West Asia
In respect to Twitter-enabled activities against Tehran, multiple different personae were formed to attack the Iranian government from different ideological and political positions. These were not your standard ‘opposition’ accounts – the ops were more sophisticated. Some posed as ultra-conservative Shia Muslims critical of the administration’s “liberal” policies; others as progressive radicals condemning the extent of the Republic’s enforcement of Islamic code.
Many users amplified Washington’s disinformation, disseminated by US government-funded Voice of America’s Farsi-language service, among a myriad of other US funded and directed propaganda platforms. All along, Twitter higher-ups were aware of these accounts, but did not shut them down and even protected them.
The impact of the collaboration between Twitter and the Pentagon on the tweets that users around the world saw and did not see is unknown, but likely significant. Twitter staff were aware of what they were doing.
For example, in July 2017, an official from the Pentagon’s central command for West Asia and North Africa (CENTCOM) emailed the social media network to request the “blue check” verification of one account and the “whitelisting” of 52 accounts that “we use to amplify certain messages.”
The official was concerned that some of these accounts, “a few” of which “had built a real following,” were no longer “indexing on hashtags.” He moreover requested “priority service” for several accounts, including the since-deleted @YemenCurrent, which broadcast announcements about US drone strikes in Yemen. The account emphasized how “accurate” these attacks were; that they only killed dangerous terrorists, never civilians – a hallmark of US drone war propaganda.
Of course, US drone strikes are anything but precise. In fact, declassified Pentagon documents indicate there was “an institutional acceptance of an inevitable collateral toll,” and that innocent people were killed indiscriminately.
In 2014, it was calculated that, in attempting to slay 41 specific, named individuals, Washington had murdered 1,147 people, among them many children – a rate of 28 deaths for every person targeted.
‘Misleading, deceptive, and spammy’
In June 2020, Twitter spokesperson Nick Pickles testified to the US House Intelligence Committee on the company’s determined efforts to end any and all “coordinated platform manipulation efforts” on the part of hostile enemy states, stating these efforts were his employer’s “top priority.”
“Our goal is to remove bad faith actors and to advance public understanding of these critical topics. Twitter defines state-backed information operations as coordinated platform manipulation efforts that can be attributed with a high degree of confidence to state-affiliated actors,” he declared.
“State-backed information operations are typically associated with misleading, deceptive, and spammy behavior. These behaviors differentiate coordinated manipulative behavior from legitimate speech on behalf of individuals and political parties.”
The following month, however, Twitter executives were invited by the Pentagon to attend classified briefings in a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) to discuss the defense of the Pentagon’s “coordinated and manipulative” social media activities.
Then-Twitter lawyer Stacia Cardille noted in an internal email the Pentagon may be seeking to retroactively classify its malign online activities “to obfuscate their activity in this space, and this may represent an overclassification to avoid embarrassment.”
Jim Baker, then-deputy general counsel of Twitter and an FBI veteran, subsequently noted that the DoD had employed “poor tradecraft” in setting up numerous Twitter accounts, and was now covering its tracks in order to prevent anyone finding out multiple users “are linked to each other” or to the US government, one way or another.
“DoD might want to give us a timetable for shutting them down in a more prolonged way that will not compromise any ongoing operations or reveal their connections to DoD,” he speculated.
Free speech absolutism
So it was the compromised accounts that were permitted to stay active, spreading disinformation and distorting the public mind all the while. Some even remain extant to this day.
To say the least, Twitter executives were well-aware that their eager and enthusiastic support of Pentagon psyops would not be received well if publicized. Shortly before the September Washington Post report on the DoD’s audit of these efforts, Twitter lawyers and lobbyists were alerted by a company communications executive about the forthcoming exposé.
After the Post story was published, Twitter staffers congratulated themselves and each other over how effectively the company concealed its role in covering up CENTCOM’s deeds, with one communications official thanking a welter of executives “for doing all that you could to manage this one,” noting with relief the story “didn’t seem to get too much traction.”
Were it not for the series of #TwitterFiles disclosures since Elon Musk controversially took over the company, these dark, shameful secrets would likely have remained buried forever. The full extent of the company’s mephitic collusion with US intelligence agencies, and the comparable, simultaneous collaboration of every major social network, must now be told in full.