Twitter Hasn’t Done Enough to Fix Its Propaganda Problem

By Dell Cameron on at

Twitter couldn’t drop the ball any harder this year if it tried. Death threats, continual harassment, and now this.

By all indications, the company has taken a careless, if not half-hearted approach in dealing with its unfortunate role in the information wars that have enveloped it and most of its social media competitors. Although Twitter has prided itself on standing up for users against intrusive government surveillance—severing the access of social media monitoring companies targeting black activists and combating law enforcement subpoenas that threaten to undermine freedom of speech—that same level of concern has not been evident when it comes to 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 turned Twitter into an effective propaganda weapon targeting elections the world over—attempts, undoubtedly, to surreptitiously manipulate domestic and foreign policy on a global scale. These instances are commonly called “conspiracy theories” or “fake news,” but in rooms where spymasters and military commanders convene, phrases like “information operations,” “influence activities,” or “disrupt and corrupt” are more aptly applied.

Weeks ago, Twitter’s assistance in identifying propaganda that targeted American voters in the 2016 election was described as “inadequate on almost every level,” by Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In total, Twitter identified merely a couple dozen accounts linked to fake Facebook pages, which Facebook described as the work of a Russian propaganda outfit with close Kremlin ties.

A Daily Beast report Friday details 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 ties to fake Facebook pages cannot possibly reflect the full extent of the misinformation campaign. According to a recent report, the St. Petersburg outfit primarily responsible, widely known as the “Internet Research Agency,” had as many as 90 people working at its US desk operating on an annual budget of nearly $1 million (around £760k).

Since hearing Sen. Warner’s displeasure spoken openly, Twitter has promised to try harder and dig deeper, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions. More recently, the Virginia senator been heard saying something more to the effect of “we’ll see what Twitter comes back with,” the source said. But following a report that Twitter deleted a significant amount of data pertaining to Russian bots—a result of its longstanding privacy policy pertaining to self-terminated accounts—it’s difficult to say whether Twitter’s belated effort will produce anything useful.

Twitter’s lackadaisical approach to the problem is 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 reportedly 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 propaganda 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-fuelled accounts spewing constant threats of death and rape, overwhelmingly at women and people of colour. On the national security front, however, as elections loom in the US and carry on worldwide, resentment over Twitter’s role as a weapon for covertly manipulating public opinion will only continue to intensify.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Featured Photo: Getty

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