Twitter accused of not protecting its users against misinformation

On August 23, the Washington Post revealed that Twitter's former chief security officer is accusing his former employer, with supporting documents, of not protecting its users from hacking and manipulation of information. Contacted by RSF, the social network denounced a "false narrative (...) intended to harm Twitter, its customers and shareholders". To combat misinformation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on platforms and governments alike to follow the recommendations made by the Forum on Information and Democracy.

Twitter is used by more than 230 million users every day, but documents obtained by the Washington Post indicate that this platform’s efforts to combat disinformation are disorganised and poorly resourced,” said Vincent Berthier, the head of RSF’s Tech Desk. “Disinformation is a public interest issue that platforms cannot manage alone. These companies, and governments, should adopt the recommendations in the report entitled “How to end infodemics.” It is time to establish democratic governance in the online information space and to rein in disinformation on the major platforms.

Peiter Zatko, who was Twitter’s security chief from November 2020 to January 2022, says Twitter is not respecting the terms of an 11-year-old agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), forbidding it “from misleading consumers about the extent to which it protects their security.” Also known as a hacker called “Mudge,” Zatko says documents he has handed over to the FTC, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice substantiate his claims.

Published by the Washington Post on 23 August, these documents include a detailed report by Zatko on the security risks to which Twitter is exposed, and a report commissioned by Zatko from a company specialising in combatting disinformation, which the newspaper identifies as the Alethea Group. This report, which the Washington Post published under the heading of “Twitter's Efforts Against Propaganda,” said Twitter was under-resourced and was “in a constant state of crisis.” 

When contacted by RSF, Twitter said: “This report does not represent the platform as it exists today and does not reflect the significant and ongoing efforts we are making to refine our approach to countering disinformation on Twitter.”

The revelations come amid a major legal battle between Twitter and Elon Musk in which they could play a major role, because the documents highlight the problem of spam and fake accounts, a key issue in the dispute.

Twitter also told RSF: “Mr. Zatko was fired from his senior executive role at Twitter in January 2022 for ineffective leadership and poor performance. What we’ve seen so far is a false narrative about Twitter and our privacy and data security practices that is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies and lacks important context. Mr. Zatko’s allegations and opportunistic timing appear designed to capture attention and inflict harm on Twitter, its customers and its shareholders. Security and privacy have long been company-wide priorities at Twitter and will continue to be.”

Permanent crisis management

The “Twitter's Efforts Against Propaganda” report says the platform’s rules for combatting disinformation are the responsibility of a team called “Site Integrity,” which has a strategic role because it shapes the work of other teams in charge of moderating content and user accounts. Twitter confirmed to RSF that disinformation was handled by several teams including “Site Integrity.”

Details provided by the report indicate that problems with Twitter’s internal organisation hamper this crucial work. It says the team does not have enough engineers at its disposal to update existing tools or develop new ones that could help them in their tasks. Other positions have also been left vacant. The report says only two people are assigned to positions related to disinformation, when eight are needed. It mentions poor coordination with other teams responsible for moderating disinformation and spam accounts – poor coordination that could lead to difficulties in identifying each team’s responsibilities.

The report also claims that Twitter adopts a permanent crisis management approach to  disinformation, implying that the teams involved are always reacting to new problems that have suddenly emerged, and that the Site Integrity team’s priority is drafting new, hastily enacted rules for using Twitter, rather than engaging in substantive work on how disinformation circulates on the platform. If this proves to be true, it will raise serious questions about Twitter's ability to effectively tackle an issue about which it has only partial information.

Is the world too big for Twitter?

The report also says that, although responsible for drafting Twitter’s policies on disinformation. the Site Integrity team does not have enough language skills to carry out its mission on a global scale, that Twitter's approach to drafting policies is too focused on US issues, and that Twitter therefore lacks the resources needed to realise its international ambitions with regard to the protection of its users.

RSF deplores the serious shortcoming described in this report but points out that disorganisation in the fight against disinformation is not inevitable. The Forum on Information and Democracy, which was created as a result of an RSF initiative, published a report entitled “How to end infodemics” in 2020 in which experts from all over the world provided 250 recommendations on how both platforms and governments can combat disinformation. Only international consultation and coordination between all stakeholders – tech companies as well as governmental authorities – can stem the disinformation that is rampant throughout the world and takes advantage of the flaws in the major communication platforms.

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