Twitter couldn’t drop the ball any harder this year if it tried. Death threats, continual harassment, and now this.
The company has, by all indications, taken a half-hearted, if not careless approach to handling the information wars rampant on social media. Although Twitter has long stood with users against intrusive government surveillance—severing the access of social media monitoring companies targeting black activists and combatting law enforcement subpoenas that threaten to undermine freedom of speech—the same level of concern has not been evident with voters amid allegations of election interference.
At a press conference on Thursday to announce the Honest Ads Act, Sen. Amy Klobucher put it bluntly: “Election security is national security.”
Massive networks of bots have today turned Twitter into a highly efficient propaganda weapon that targets elections the world over—a means by which adversaries can surreptitiously manipulate public opinion, and thereby decision-makers, on a global scale. These attacks might be commonly dismissed as “conspiracy theories” or “fake news,” but in rooms where spies, tacticians and military minds convene, phrases like “information operations,” “influence activities,” and “disrupt and corrupt” are more aptly applied.
Weeks ago, Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described Twitter’s assistance in identifying the foreign propaganda targeting American voters during the 2016 election as “inadequate on almost every level.” Twitter reportedly identified less than two dozen accounts linked to fake Facebook pages, which Facebook had already described to the committee as the work of a Russian propaganda outfit with close Kremlin ties.
A Daily Beast report Friday describes how Twitter also turned over a list of tweets that RT News, which is funded by the Russian government, had paid to promote to US viewers.
While the US intelligence community considers RT News one of Moscow’s most effective propaganda tools—an allegation the network vehemently denies—a list of ads promoted by the outlet and a handful of accounts with links to fake Facebook pages cannot possibly reflect the full extent of the targeted misinformation campaign. According to a recent report, the St. Petersburg outfit primarily responsible, widely known as the “Internet Research Agency,” operated on an annual budget of nearly $1 million, and has had as many as 90 people working at its US desk.
Twitter’s lackadaisical approach to the problem is perhaps exemplified best by a report Warner referenced yesterday while introducing legislation to regulate online political ads: A Twitter account that falsely represented itself as the Tennessee Republican Party has now been linked to the Internet Research Agency. BuzzFeed learned this week that Twitter failed to suspend the account for 11 months, despite the repeated warnings of GOP officials.
The fake Republican account was widely cited by US news outlets and its signal was frequently boosted by Trump campaign officials, demonstrating what a supremely effective tool Twitter can be in the ratfucking toolbox.
These reports couldn’t come at a worse time for Twitter, as it is very publicly struggling to overcome biting criticisms over its handling (or rather, not handling) of hate-fueled accounts spewing constant threats of death and rape—overwhelmingly at women and people of color. On the security front, however, as elections loom in the US and carry on worldwide, you can expect resentment to intensify over state-funded efforts to covertly manipulate foreign electorates.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment for this story.