SAN FRANCISCO — In response to a 2017 request from the Pentagon, Twitter kept online a network of accounts that the U.S. military used to advance its interests in the Middle East, according to internal company emails that were made public on Tuesday by The Intercept, a nonprofit publication.
A counterterrorism division at Twitter knew about the arrangement, but others did not, five people with knowledge of the matter said. When it became more widely known within the company, executives rushed to undo it. But they struggled with whether to publicly disclose the military-run Twitter accounts, the people said.
Some of the accounts were removed, but others remained online for years. Twitter eventually disclosed the U.S. influence campaign this year.
The situation was unusual because Twitter normally removes and publicly discloses influence campaigns conducted by governments. Social media companies have taken a strong line against state-backed influence campaigns since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Russia misused Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to influence American voters. But in this case, Twitter’s transparency efforts moved slowly and the company showed deference to the U.S. government.
The internal documents published by The Intercept were provided by Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk. Mr. Musk has made an archive of documents available to select journalists to scrutinize the decisions of the company’s previous leaders. He did not respond to a request from The New York Times for access to the files.
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It is unclear if Twitter, under Mr. Musk, will continue revealing influence campaigns on its platform. The billionaire has laid off many employees who worked to detect foreign influence on Twitter and has questioned the level of collaboration between the government and the company under its previous management.
Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command declined to comment on the matter.
The situation began in 2017 when an official working with U.S. Central Command requested that Twitter verify some of the military’s accounts, according to an internal company email.
The accounts had been flagged by a Twitter system used to automatically detect terrorist content and were not easy to find in searches. The Pentagon asked Twitter to “whitelist” the accounts, which would prevent the automatic tools from flagging them and make them more broadly visible on the platform. Twitter’s counterterrorism team complied, two people familiar with the matter said.
Twitter executives became aware of the situation when a member of the counterterrorism unit asked the broader security team for help with automating the whitelisting of the U.S. government accounts, three people with knowledge of the discussions said. Surprised by the request, the security team asked to review the accounts, the people said.
Twitter allows governments to operate accounts on its platform so long as the accounts clearly state who is running them. Accounts that masquerade as civilians are forbidden. Some of the accounts in the Pentagon’s 2017 request were clearly labeled government-run, three people who participated in discussions said, while others were not.
Twitter executives then removed some of the military accounts that were not clearly labeled, three people involved in the discussions said.
But while the company regularly disclosed other state-backed influence campaigns in transparency reports, executives hesitated in this case, the people said. Some feared they could violate national security laws by speaking publicly about the takedown of the campaign, they said.
Years later, some Twitter executives said they had conversations with the Defense Department about removing all of the accounts and disclosing them, according to emails published by The Intercept.
“I think having a deeper understanding of what is going on will help us make a better decision,” Jim Baker, a lawyer for Twitter at the time, wrote in a 2020 email. He added that the accounts might be relevant to a military operation that would be wound down and that “shutting them down all at once may compromise other operations.”
In August, Twitter announced that it had removed several accounts that promoted U.S. foreign policy interests abroad, the first time it had disclosed such a campaign. Accounts linked to the campaign were also removed from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Eric Schmitt and Ryan Mac contributed reporting.