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Democrat Lawmakers Pressured Twitter to Manufacture Foreign Influence Reports to Justify Censorship Campaign

    Twitter staff relented to a pressure campaign spearheaded by a Democratic lawmaker in the fall of 2017, changing its advertising policy to allow for a closer relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies, according to internal documents published Tuesday by independent journalist Matt Taibbi.

    Twitter executives did not believe that there was significant activity by Russian election interference groups on the platform as of Sept. 6, 2017, and had internally decided to direct concerned reporters to Facebook, who they believed to be facing the brunt of congressional scrutiny, according to Taibbi. However, Twitter faced renewed pressure after Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia — then the vice chair of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee — slammed the company later in the month for producing a “frankly inadequate” report on Russian activity on the platform, in which the company informed the committee that it had suspended just 22 of 2,700 accounts it had suspected of being aligned with Russian influence groups, according to Taibbi.

    “Warner has political incentive to keep this issue at the top of the news, maintain pressure on us and [the] rest of industry to keep producing material for them … ” wrote vice president of public policy Colin Cromwell in a September 2017 email to founder and former CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey and others whose names Taibbi redacted. “Democrats are also taking cues from Hillary Clinton, who in her ‘What Happened’ book tour is pointedly talking about [the] role of Russian propaganda and dirty tricks that were pushed through social media had in her demise.”

    A key component of the pressure campaign was the looming threat of legislation that would hinder Twitter’s ability to display political advertisements, in conjunction with negative publicity from major news outlets, according to Taibbi.  In response to the mounting public pressure, Twitter formed a task force on Oct. 2, 2017, to further investigate the influence of Russian operatives on the platform, but had concluded by Oct. 23 that only 17 of the 2500 accounts that were investigated were connected with Russia, according to Taibbi.

    Just two of the accounts were found to be “significant” spenders, according to Taibbi. Both were state-sponsored news outlets, Russia Today and Sputnik, Taibbi reported.

    Twitter was preparing to change its ad policy and remove the offending accounts in a bid to head off impending legislative threats, and had pledged to work with Sen. Warner and other Democratic politicians — as well as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona — “on their desire to legislate,” according to Taibbi. However, after a Buzzfeed article leaked the initial list of 2,700 suspicious accounts in November, 2017, renewed pressure on the social media platform forced the company to apologize to politicians for inactivity on accounts that they had previously reported to be unproblematic, according to Taibbi. 

    “Given we’ve now suspended all accounts, we will take a hit in the press that moves from BuzzFeed to more establishment publications. We’ll work to contain it,” wrote one Twitter staffer in a November, 2017, email, whose name was redacted by Taibbi. “Relatedly, we can expect more investigation of accounts that are tangentially associated with the IRA handover to the U.S. committees, buoyed by academic brand names. Reporters now know this is a model that works. 

    Twitter publicly maintained its stance that advertising content was removed at the company’s “sole discretion,” but the company soon changed its internal guidance to establish a new relationship with intelligence agencies, according to Taibbi.

    “Internal Guidance: Any user identified by the U.S. intelligence community as a state-sponsored entity conducting cyber operations against targets associated with U.S. or other elections, or an entity associated with such operations, shall not be allowed to advertise on Twitter,” one document reads, according to Taibbi.

    Three years later, the FBI had a close relationship with and communicated closely with Twitter staff in the run-up to its censoring of the Hunter Biden laptop story, and the agency paid Twitter millions for its employees’ time and according to a previous investigation of Twitter’s internal documents conducted by author Michael Shellenberger.

    Twitter and Sen. Warner’s office did not immediately respond to a Daily Caller News Foundation request for comment.

    Post written by John Hugh DeMastri. Republished with permission from DCNF. Images via Becker News.

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    OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion.