Internal Twitter communications released by the company’s new owner and CEO, Elon Musk, are fueling intense scrutiny of the FBI’s efforts alongside social media companies to thwart foreign disinformation in the run-up to the 2020 election.
The FBI is declining to specify what other social media companies the federal agency gave money to after news sources confirmed that it paid Twitter nearly $3.5 million. FBI officials told Fox News that the nearly $3.5 million payment to Twitter was a "reimbursement" for the "reasonable costs and expenses associated with their response to a legal process.....for complying with legal requests, and a standard procedure." The FBI officials also said that Twitter isn't the only social media company that is being paid by the federal agency, telling Fox News "We don’t just reimburse Twitter."
"While we are not able to speak to specific payments, the government is required to provide reimbursement for reasonable expenses directly related to searching for, assembling, reproducing, or otherwise providing the information responsive to the legal process. This requirement is set by federal law and the courts are the final arbiters of what is reasonable compensation," the FBI officials said.
Twitter's former Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker was told in one email shared by independent journalist Michael Shellenberger that the company has collected $3,415,323 from the FBI. Substack writer and journalist Matt Taibbi tweeted several internal files between FBI employees and Twitter workers as part of the Twitter Files. In response, a Twitter employee said that three of the four accounts were suspended and asked another person at the company to review the fourth account flagged by the FBI for "possible civic misinformation."
Taibbi said that one of the accounts tweeted on November 8, "I want to remind republicans to vote tomorrow, Wednesday November 9." In another email shared by Taibbi, the "Public Sector Engagement Squad" at the FBI's San Francisco office notified Twitter employees of "account activities" that "potentially constitute violations of Twitter's Terms of Service."
“We would never go to a company to say you need to squelch this story,” said one former FBI official who helped oversee the government’s cooperation with companies including Twitter, Google, and Facebook.
When asked by Fox News if the FBI used back-channel communications with employees at Twitter to spike or suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story, the FBI officials said "We did not request anything of the sort." "We focus on activities attributed to foreign actors, not on the content or narrative," the FBI officials said when asked if the agency provided information to Twitter employees directly or indirectly, or regarding Russian influence and Hunter Biden.
In a statement shared with Fox News, an FBI spokesperson said, "The correspondence between the FBI and Twitter show nothing more than examples of our traditional, longstanding, and ongoing federal government and private sector engagements, which involve numerous companies over multiple sectors and industries. As evidenced in the correspondence, the FBI provides critical information to the private sector in an effort to allow them to protect themselves and their customers."
"The men and women of the FBI work every day to protect the American public. It is unfortunate that conspiracy theorists and others are feeding the American public misinformation with the sole purpose of attempting to discredit the agency," the spokesperson added. After the 2016 election, social media executives knew they had a problem. Russian operatives had used their platforms to run a massive covert influence campaign to help elect Donald Trump, using bots to spread disinformation and sow division among Americans.
To prepare for the next election, the executives set about bolstering their internal controls, including hiring former law enforcement and intelligence officials. But they also knew they had to forge a closer relationship with the U.S. government to help root out foreign trolls and sources of disinformation. What followed were a series of regular meetings with federal agents that began in May 2018. The released communications as well as interviews with people involved in the meetings portray routine, friendly, and sometimes tense contacts between company executives and the government officials with whom they regularly interacted.
Among the released communications are lively exchanges between Twitter and the FBI, revealing some of the sensitivities—and tensions—at play as the government and Silicon Valley slowly figured out how to work together. One former FBI official who spoke to CNN recalls that tech executives would insist on meetings away from their campuses, in part because government agents weren’t welcome. Feelings in Silicon Valley toward the intelligence community were still raw since the Edward Snowden leaks detailed a vast data collection apparatus that targeted the tech companies.
“Early on, who hosted the meeting was also a political football,” said a person familiar with the meetings between the government and Silicon Valley. “Each company wanted someone else to. There were worries about employees seeing a bunch of feds and leaking it in an inaccurate way.” One tech source, however, dismissed this and said companies offered their offices for the meetings out of a shared sense of responsibility.
Nevertheless, the meetings went ahead. The first one took place at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park. Later meetings were held at Twitter and LinkedIn’s offices, a person familiar with the meetings told CNN. Some of the early interactions were terse. Some news organizations described complaints from some tech executives that the FBI was sharing only limited information, useless to help the companies protect their platforms.
A telling moment came early on when a government lawyer lectured tech executives about the limits on what the government can do to help, multiple people who attended the meeting told CNN. One Silicon Valley executive described how the lawyer gave a 20-minute speech about the First Amendment and insisted that “government representatives can’t tell the companies to take any content down.” Former Twitter employees and FBI officials involved say that by 2020, their discussions had become better coordinated and useful to both sides. One indicator of how advantageous the relationship had become: By 2020, Facebook was issuing press releases about some of the discussions.