Thomas Rid ( @RIDT ) is Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University/SAIS. Rid was a witness in one of the first open hearings on Russian disinformation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March, where he called out Twitter as an " unwitting agent " of adversarial intelligence services.
Twitter is the most open social media platform, which is partly why it's used by so many politicians, celebrities, journalists, tech types, conference goers, and experts working on fast-moving topics. As we learned over the past year, Twitter's openness was exploited by adversarial governments trying to influence elections. Twitter is marketing itself as a news platform, the go-to place to find out, in the words of its slogan, "What's happening?"
So what's happening with disinformation on Twitter? That is very hard to tell, because Twitter is actively making it easier to hide evidence of wrongdoing and making it harder to investigate abuse by limiting and monitoring third party research, and by forcing data companies to delete evidence as requested by users. The San Francisco-based firm has long been the platform of choice for adversarial intelligence agencies, malicious automated accounts (so-called bots), and extremists at the fringes. Driven by ideology and the market, the most open and liberal social media platform has become a threat to open and liberal democracy.
In the course of late 2016 and 2017, Facebook tried to confront abuse: by hiring a top-notch security team; by improving account authentication; and by tackling disinformation. Twitter has done the opposite—its security team is rudimentary and reclusive; the company seems to be in denial on the scope of disinformation; and it even optimised its platform for hiding bots and helping adversarial operators to delete incriminating evidence—to delete incriminating evidence not just from Twitter, but even from the archives of third party data providers. I spoke with half a dozen analysts from such intelligence companies with privileged access to Twitter data, all of whom asked for anonymity for fear of upsetting their existing relationship with Twitter. One analyst joked that he would to cut off my feet if I mentioned him or his firm. Twitter declined to comment on the record for this story two times.
Twitter is libertarian to the core. The platform has always allowed users to register any available handle, on as many accounts as they want, anonymously, no real name required, in sharp contrast to Facebook. Users could always delete content, undo engagements, and suspend their accounts. There are strong privacy arguments in favor of giving users full control of their data, even after publication. From the beginning, Twitter has reflected those values and held on to them against pressure from undemocratic governments. But its openness, particularly the openness for deletion, anonymity, and automation, has made the platform easy to exploit.