Photo: Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. Credit: Matthew Keys
Internal Twitter documents released to select journalists have once again shown the deep connection that exists between the U.S. government’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies and U.S.-based social media companies. The “Twitter Files” are a set of internal communications, including emails between company executives as well as with politicians, the FBI, Pentagon and other agencies.
The close cooperation of social media companies and other online platforms with the state has been well-documented. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple and many more partner with the NSA’s PRISM program, giving the agency nearly unlimited access to online communications and account information. They comply with over-broad geofence warrants designed to get around the protections from unreasonable search and seizure outlined in the Fourth Amendment and upheld in the Supreme Court’s 2018 Carpenter v. United States ruling. Moderation teams make sure that news outlets from targeted countries like Russia, Iran and Venezuela, as well as individual accounts exposing the crimes of the U.S. state and its allies at home and abroad, are labeled “disinformation” and limited or shut down entirely.
Twitter, along with others, also allows companies like Dataminr and ZeroFox to access a “firehose” of Tweets, a feed of every post coming through the service. Dataminr has been used by law enforcement to track protests, including the uprising in the summer of 2020 against racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. These companies rely on access to social media feeds to collect and analyze information, which they then sell as trend data to corporate and government customers. After collaboration between Dataminr and police was exposed in 2020, the company stopped offering contracts to government agencies, prompting the federal government to move to the similar ZeroFox service instead at the end of the year. In further corporate-government collaboration, Dataminr counted among its investors both Twitter and In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA.
Part Six of the Twitter Files, posted by journalist Matt Taibbi, details how the FBI and Twitter maintained a close relationship — as he calls it, the company worked as a “subsidiary” of the FBI. In one email from November 2022, an FBI agent opens with a friendly “Hello Twitter contacts” and suggests accounts “which may potentially constitute violations of Twitter’s Terms of Service for any action or inaction deemed appropriate within Twitter policy.” A Twitter employee responds, “I’ve reviewed this already … and suspended three of the accounts.”
Another email from the same time lists 25 Twitter accounts, of which 7 were permanently suspended, one was temporarily suspended, and 8 “had Tweets bounced,” or flagged for removal. The FBI explicitly requests that Twitter preserve information about the account owners and content to assist with possible legal proceedings, and that Twitter “voluntarily provide … location information associated with the accounts.”
Part Eight of the Twitter Files, published in The Intercept by Lee Fang, exposes the partnership between Twitter and the Pentagon. In just one example, an official at U.S. Central Command requested verification or whitelisting of a number of Arabic-language accounts “we use to amplify certain messages.” The cagey language obscures the purposes of those accounts: to explicitly push U.S. propaganda around the Saudi war in Yemen, “promoting U.S.-supported militias in Syria and anti-Iran messages in Iraq.” Other accounts tweeted in Russian. The accounts were supposed to be explicitly labeled as being associated with the U.S. government, but in many cases were not.
The level of hypocrisy here cannot be overstated. While the U.S. government and social media companies have railed against countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Iran and Russia for allegedly running fake accounts to promote misinformation, it is doing that exact thing with legal cover and with the willing partnership of the social media companies themselves. Even the definition of “misinformation” is guided by the goals and needs of imperialism.
Elon Musk is no hero of free speech
In some ways, the information itself revealed in the Twitter Files has been overshadowed by the man who released it — Elon Musk. Since his purchase of Twitter, Elon Musk has been heralded by the right as a fighter for free speech and reinstated a number of far-right personalities. By releasing these internal Twitter emails, Musk is pursuing his own political agenda and a bogus right-wing narrative about “censorship.”
That Musk is an odious right winger does not mean that the public cannot learn valuable information from the communications he releases as part of his battle with other ruling-class factions. Likewise, Musk’s actions do not make him a friend to the movements against war and mass surveillance.
The application of “free speech” rights on Twitter is not even across the board. There was not a general amnesty for suspended accounts. Instead, the reinstatements are coming relatively slowly, indicating deliberate decision-making by Twitter’s new executives. In addition, a number of antifascist organizations and individuals have been targeted and suspended, as have those critical of Musk and his companies. While Twitter has always had problems with bigotry and was not a haven for oppressed people before the Musk purchase, rabid antisemitism, transphobia, misogyny and racism have been more prominent on the platform.
Musk and his supporters have framed the Twitter Files as opening a new period for the company. But it will be impossible for the billionaire and the multi-billion dollar company to avoid close collaboration with the U.S. government. In particular, another of Musk’s companies, SpaceX, holds billions of dollars of contracts with NASA, the Department of Defense and USAID. It has recently launched its Starlink satellites to provide internet access in Ukraine as well as in Iran at moments where doing so was politically advantageous for Washington.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms have become the primary way that billions across the world get their information. They should not be controlled by private companies beholden to capital and acting at the behest of the U.S. government to push propaganda. Instead, they should be operated as public utilities, democratically controlled by the workers who make them run and the people who use them. This will allow transparent and open governance and rules processes to finally be implemented. Opening these platforms in a way that working-class people who run and use them have control over them can guarantee that they serve the needs of the people.