“It’s clear that state actors continue to invest in influence operations,” said Lisa Kaplan, chief executive of the Alethea Group, which tracks the spread of false narratives. “With the removal of state media labels, these outlets can now operate without users noticing that the information is likely to be biased.”
In the tumultuous five months since billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter with the help of minority investors in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, Tesla’s chief executive has reinstated accounts banned for spreading falsehoods and deleted staff looking for propaganda campaigns using networks. of automated accounts impersonating people living in the targeted countries.
Musk called himself a “free-speech absolutist” and said that broader verifications would help the cause of citizen journalism. “It’s so important to hear people’s voices,” he said in a recent video interview. “The actual voice of the people, not the filtered voice of the people, and let the people choose the narrative, and let the people define the truth and not five editor-in-chiefs of major publications. “
After publicly questioning why news from a government should be treated differently from posts from private companies or nonprofit groups, Musk slapped state affiliation labels this month on NPR, British Broadcasting Corp and others with public funding but independent control over their content.
The subsequent backlash, which included NPR dropping Twitter, gave Musk an opening to drop all such labels, which former employees said Russia’s RT had been seeking since shortly after the Musk took over.
Kaplan said some government-controlled accounts can attract a wider audience with well-crafted content, but also push lies about many issues that can divide people, including covid-19 and violence of the police.
Twitter has also ended its policy of not recommending state-backed media to users. It has begun assisting a wide range of such outlets, including those based in China, Russia and Iran, reverse what has been a month of steady losses in followers, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Editor in chief of RT tweeted Friday, in Twitter’s automated translation from Russian: “Twitter removed me and all our channels as ‘publicly funded media’. Now you can find me in search too. Brother, Elon, from the heart.”
Musk and his top content moderation officer did not respond to a request for comment.
Before and after Musk bought Twitter, US officials examined whether his foreign investors or Tesla’s dependence on manufacturing and sales in China gave them grounds to oppose the transaction for national security reasons. They decided they lacked the authority to act, largely because Musk is a citizen of the United States.
Twitter also gets a lot of money from China, even though the service is banned there, former security chief Peiter Zatko told a whistleblower complaint last year.
The US government remains deeply concerned about influence operations from adversarial governments, which in many cases combine official or state-friendly media with automated accounts and systems for creating social media posts that seem to get them more engagement, which can lead to them being promoted to more users.
On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that a secret document shared in a private Discord chat said the US military had concluded that a Russian agency was getting the better of it and claimed that hundreds of thousands its bots are noticed by most social networks less. more than 1 percent of the time.
The following day, a US criminal complaint charged that Chinese police used thousands of fake accounts both for propaganda and to harass and threaten expatriate government critics living in the United States.
Twitter has also made it difficult for researchers and academics to track influence operations by charging for access to a large number of tweets.
Atlantic Council researcher Alyssa Kann said removing the labels is another blow to the transparency that Musk has said he will prioritize.
“This change may make it more difficult for users to distinguish between information that is credible versus that produced by political actors,” Kann said.
Oremus contributed to this report.