For all of the talk about election interference from Russia, specifically on social media platforms, in 2016, and whether it might be replicated, Twitter has stopped what may be a coordinated effort from a different country.
Twitter’s Safety account on Wednesday said that, acting on a tip from the FBI, it “removed approximately 130 accounts that appeared to originate in Iran. They were attempting to disrupt the public conversation during the first 2020 U.S. Presidential Debate.”
“We identified these accounts quickly, removed them from Twitter, and shared full details with our peers, as standard. They had very low engagement and did not make an impact on the public conversation. Our capacity and speed continue to grow, and we’ll remain vigilant,” the company said.
Twitter also added some photos of the offending tweets, one of which came from an account called “JackQAnon.” Twitter also said that “the accounts and their content will be published in full once our investigation is complete.”
Twitter has said that the accounts “originated in Iran,” although Twitter has not said that the tweets had anything to do with the Iranian government, or any kind of coordinated effort by that government. Twitter did, however, remove more than 4,000 accounts that were indeed “linked to the Iranian government,” CNET reported in 2019. And there’s a chance that the tweets only drew the FBI’s attention due to some such connection.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, tweeted that “we’re grateful to the
@FBI for the tip, and are staying vigilant about threats to #Election2020—foreign and domestic.”
The tweets had “low engagement,” according to a tweet by Jason Brodsky of the United Against Nuclear Iran organization, although Brodsky also noted that “there are many accounts from Iranian officials with much higher engagement which should also be on @Twitter’s radar.” And he noted that some of the accounts appeared to be pro-Trump, despite the president’s withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear deal and generally hostile in posture towards Iran.
This is not the season’s first Twitter controversy involving Iran. On September 1, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, sent a tweet referencing “the Israelis and filthy Zionist agents of the U.S.,” including “the Jewish member of Trump’s family,” which was presumably a reference to the president’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Twitter did not remove the post, and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted the same day that Khamenei’s “deeply hateful post clearly violates Twitter’s rules against comments that “dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes.’”
Following the debate, Greenblatt also sharply criticized President Trump for refusing to condemn the Proud Boys and telling them to “Stand Back and Stand By.” The ADL chief denounced the Proud Boys as “dangerous, violent people who are using these words as a rallying cry.”
Twitter recently said they will roll out a prompt that encourages users to read articles before they tweet them.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.