Twitter execs scoffed at lists of supposed propaganda accounts submitted by feds, disinfo groups

Former intelligence source reportedly calls interagency office "an incubator for the domestic disinformation complex" that repurposes "[a]ll the sh** we pulled in other countries since the Cold War."

Published: March 2, 2023 5:37pm

Updated: March 2, 2023 11:45pm

Twitter executives mocked purported disinformation and foreign-influence reports streaming in from the feds and private organizations that tout themselves as guardians of democracy, according to the latest batch of the Twitter Files authorized for release by new owner Elon Musk.

But mainstream media, including the Associated Press and Washington Post, eagerly gobbled them up, pressing Twitter on why it let such nefarious content run rampant, according to independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who was tasked with reporting Thursday's batch.

The interagency Global Engagement Center "doubled their budget by aggressively overstating threats through unverified accusations that can't be replicated either by external academics or by Twitter," according to Aaron Rodericks, Twitter head of threat disruption. He questioned its credibility given that GEC funded a campaign against Iranian antiwar activists.

GEC is hosted by the State Department with initial partners including the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency, but Just the News could not find a current list of GEC partners.

The White House requested $1.186 billion for diplomatic policy and support, which includes GEC, in its fiscal year 2023 budget request. GEC doesn't have its own line item.

An unidentified former intelligence source told Taibbi GEC is "an incubator for the domestic disinformation complex" that repurposes "[a]ll the sh** we pulled in other countries since the Cold War."

The reports to Twitter provided scant if any evidence that flagged accounts were using "inauthentic behavior" to promote "Hindu nationalism" or Russian and Chinese propaganda, wrongly identifying a conservative Cuban immigrant among other Americans, Taibbi wrote.

Yoel Roth, then Twitter's head of trust and safety, told the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab he "spot-checked" several accounts on its 40,000-strong Hindu nationalism list and concluded "virtually all appear to be real people," not stooges.

DFRL belatedly told Taibbi it didn't publish the list, compiled by "a former researcher," because Twitter confirmed the organization's lack of confidence, but it shared no such reservations when Reuters reported DFRL's Indian efforts.

"A total crock," Roth concluded when shown the Chinese influence list submitted by GEC, which included foreign-based CNN employees. GEC also considers using encrypted messaging apps a red flag.

DFRL receives funding from GEC, and both participate in the Election Integrity Partnership. The DHS-blessed private consortium mass-reported supposed election misinformation to tech platforms in the 2020 and 2022 cycles and targeted news organizations including Just the News.

GEC made clear in a 2020 report on Russian propaganda that it made no distinction between state and independent actors because they were all part of the same "ecosystem," Taibbi noted. 

The center also put the French "yellow vest" populist protests against President Emmanuel Macron in the Russian-propaganda ecosystem. An unidentified Twitter executive mocked the idea that retweets make accounts "Russia-linked," and Rodericks said GEC assumed agreeing with Moscow meant "Moscow-controlled."

Only three organizations are unredacted among GEC's list of 39 funded organizations in fiscal year 2018, according to a State inspector general report in 2020 that showed the vast majority of GEC's initial $98.7 million funding came from the Pentagon, Taibbi noted. 

State said it couldn't answer by Thursday night a request to justify the redactions, which cite Freedom of Information Act exemptions for "trade secrets" and "techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions."

GEC employed J.M. Berger as a contractor until shortly before the 2017 launch of the "Hamilton 68" dashboard of Twitter accounts "linked" to Russia for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, but Berger told Taibbi it wasn't a GEC job.

Taibbi's previous Twitter Files batch included disclosures that raised questions about the credibility of the now-defunct dashboard. Twitter staff, for example, referred to congressional Democrats who cited the dashboard as proof of Donald Trump-Russia collusion as "trolls" wasting their time.

The new batch shows Roth said ASD was "back at their old tricks" when it showed up in the news claiming Russia was spreading misinformation in Venezuela. He told a Twitter in-house event that Twitter public data could only support "inferences" of "Russian fingerprints" at best.

The German Marshall Fund of the U.S., which hosts ASD, pointed Just the News to its Hamilton 68 "fact sheet" published in response to the previous Twitter Files batch. It said the dashboard, which operated between August 2017 and December 2018, has been "consistently misunderstood or misrepresented" by the media, pundits and lawmakers.

Hamilton 68 was not limited to Russian bots, but rather analyzed networks that "reliably amplified Russian propaganda and disinformation, either wittingly or unwittingly," and "primarily targeted audiences in the United States," according to the fact sheet, which also denies the dashboard was a "McCarthyite blacklist," claiming it didn't identify accounts "in any manner that could have been used to censor, deplatform, defame, or silence any individual on the list."

Roth said in 2019 that Twitter had misidentified 228 accounts as "connected to Russia" that it later "more confidently" associated with Venezuela. It was ASD analyst Bret Schafer's response to Roth, that some Venezuela accounts "could be traced" to Russia's Internet Research Agency, that prompted Roth's "old tricks" comment, the fund told Just the News.

Roth and Nick Pickles, Twitter's global government affairs lead, also groaned when Politico cited a report by New Knowledge, founded by NSA alumni, to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Two of the flagged accounts were "commercial spam" from Indonesia and an American, Roth said. Pickles said New Knowledge's practice is to "pick accounts that they have deemed to be IRA [Russia] controlled, and then spin up bigger macro analysis" that reporters uncritically adopt.

Taibbi noted the New Knowledge report was leaked a few days before the group was outed for creating a fake Russian operation in support of Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in a 2017 special election.

GEC, DFRL and Primer, which purchased the company previously known as New Knowledge, did not answer queries.

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