- Despite the release of the #TwitterFiles revealing Twitters facilitation of sprawling US propaganda campaigns and psychological operations a recent investigation reveals that Musk’s acquisition of the platform has done little to curb the prevalence and influence of pro-Western information warfare.
Twitter’s “state-affiliated media” policy has an unwritten exemption for US government-funded and -controlled news media accounts. Twitter even boosts these accounts as “authoritative” sources for news during the Russian/Ukrainian war.
Elon Musk’s controlled release of the documents known as the “Twitter Files” has given us some insight into the inner workings of the social media platform. The batch of docs released on December 20 is arguably the most explosive, detailing Twitter’s deliberate shielding of US propaganda operations. After getting limited access to Twitter‘s internal systems, Lee Fang of the Intercept (12/20/22) detailed how Twitter staff “whitelisted” accounts run by US Central Command (CENTCOM), the unit of the US military that oversees the Middle East, as part of covert propaganda campaigns. In other words, Twitter protected accounts engaged in US psychological warfare operations, even though they clearly violated the platform’s terms of service.
But this is far from the whole story of Twitter’s assistance with US influence operations. A FAIR investigation reveals that dozens of large accounts that are part of US overt propaganda networks are given special treatment from the company, in blatant violation of Twitter’s own policies.
Through a lopsided “state-affiliated” media policy application, Twitter has actually gone against its own mission to provide “context” to users. More acutely, in Ukraine, Twitter actively promoted US funded media organizations as part of the “Topics” feature which ostensibly aggregated “authoritative” sources. The prominence of these outlets on the platform has strengthened their influence on the national media ecosystem, and has helped shape public perceptions of the entire war.
In 2020, as part of an effort to “provide additional context” for information users encounter on the platform, Twitter (8/6/20) announced a policy to add labels to “accounts that are controlled by certain official representatives of governments, state-affiliated media entities and individuals associated with those entities.”
“We believe,” Twitter declared in a blog post, “people have the right to know when a media account is affiliated directly or indirectly with a state actor.” Twitter further said it would not “recommend or amplify accounts or their tweets with these labels.”
The clear primary target at the time was Russian state-affiliated media, though the policy has been extended to other countries. According to Twitter‘s own numbers, accounts with the “state-affiliated” label experience up to a 30% reduction in circulation.
As part of its policy during the Ukraine War, Twitter (3/16/22) announced its intention to “elevate credible and reliable information.” In a blog post, Twitter praised its “effective” policy implementation against Russian government accounts. They claimed that “engagements per tweet decreased by approximately 25%,” and “the number of accounts that engaged with those Tweets decreased by 49%”
But it’s clear that Twitter’s policy isn’t applied evenly. There are numerous media operations with close ties to the US government—some even fully government-funded and -run—whose accounts aren’t labeled “state-affiliated.” Under this biased application of the policy, Twitter enables US propaganda outlets to maintain the pretense of independence on the platform, a tacit endorsement of US soft power and influence operations.
This lopsided approach makes it clear that Twitter’s policy is not about “providing context” to users, but rather promoting the US establishment worldview. In short, Twitter is serving as an active participant in an ongoing information war.
Delegitimizing official enemies
Twitter defines “state-affiliated media” as
outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.
The policy is ostensibly apolitical and applies to all state media accounts equally, but in practice, the true purpose of the policy is clear: to delegitimize media affiliated with states opposed to US policy. The assumption inherent in Twitter’s policy is that if a state is considered to be an enemy of the US, then any media affiliated with that state is inherently suspicious. Users therefore need to be warned about the content they are consuming. FAIR could find no examples of accounts labeled “United States state-affiliated media,” even though there are many outlets that would obviously seem to fit that description.
Twitter lists the countries to be targeted by the policy, which has some notable omissions. For example, the list does not include Qatar, and accounts for the Qatar-funded media outlets Al Jazeera and AJ+ do not feature the “state-affiliated” label. But even among the states that are listed, the policy is not applied equally.
Although Twitter lists the United States and US allies like the United Kingdom and Canada as countries where “labels appear on relevant Twitter accounts,” this appears to refer to outlets based in those countries that are affiliated with other countries. Certainly there are US-linked accounts that could not more obviously fit the category of “state-affiliated” yet receive no labels.
As an example of some blatant oversights, none of the accounts for the US Army, National Security Agency or Central Intelligence Agency are currently labeled as a state or government entity, despite being “government accounts heavily engaged in geopolitics and diplomacy.” Additionally, the accounts for the Israeli Defense Force, Ministry of Defense and prime minister are all unlabeled.
Meanwhile, Twitter rigorously enforces the rules for states the US considers to be hostile. Accounts for major state agencies in Russia, China and Iran are generally labeled as state entities. Media outlets from those countries are also targeted: PressTV from Iran, RT and Sputnik from Russia, and China Daily, Global Times, CGTN and China Xinhua News from China are all labeled “state-affiliated media.”
Twitter has taken extra measures against Russia after the invasion, adding explicit warnings on any post linking to “a Russian state-affiliated media website”:
If a user attempts to like, retweet or quote tweet a post that includes this restricted media, they are given a second warning:
Though the user is still able to interact with the content, these warnings are designed to nudge the user away from doing so, thus slowing the spread of disapproved information.
Twitter’s policy defines “state-affiliated media” as newsrooms where the state has “control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” But there are several major media accounts that seem to fit this description that have no such warning labels.
None of the major public media outlets in the US, Britain and Canada have received the label. In 2017, NPR received 4% of its funding from the US government. The BBC receives a large portion of its funding from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The CBC receives $1.2 billion in funding from the Canadian government. Yet Twitter accounts for the BBC, CBC and NPR are all unlabeled on the platform.
To explain this discrepancy, Twitter makes a distinction between “state-financed” and “state-affiliated” media. Twitter writes:
State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, are not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy.
The idea that publicly supported media in either Britain or the US are independent of the state is highly dubious. Firstly, it is unclear why state funding does not fall under the “financial resources” language in Twitter’s policy; governments can and have used the threat of pulling funding to enforce their editorial judgments (Extra!, 3–4/95; FAIR.org, 5/17/05). Secondly, government influence operates on a bureaucratic level, as scholar Tom Mills (OpenDemocracy, 1/25/17) noted of the BBC:
Governments set the terms under which it operates, they appoint its most senior figures, who in future will be directly involved in day-to-day managerial decision making, and they set the level of the license fee, which is the BBC’s major source of income.
National Endowment for Democracy
A look at the US’s soft power initiatives shows far more outlets that ought to fall under the “state affiliated” label. One such conduit for funding is the National Endowment for Democracy. The NED, created during the Reagan administration, pours $170 million a year into organizations dedicated to defending or installing regimes friendly to US policies.
ProPublica (11/24/10) described the NED as being “established by Congress, in effect, to take over the CIA’s covert propaganda efforts.” David Ignatius of the Washington Post (9/22/91) reported on the organization as a vehicle for “spyless coups,” as it was “doing in public what the CIA used to do in private.” The first NED president, Carl Gershman (MintPress, 9/9/19), admitted that the switch was largely a PR move to shroud the organization’s intentions: “It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA.”
NED operations in Ukraine deserve especially close scrutiny, given the organization’s role in the 2014 Maidan coup and the information war surrounding the Russian invasion. In 2013, Gershman described Ukraine as the “biggest prize” in the East/West rivalry (Washington Post, 9/26/13). Later that year, the NED united with other Western-backed influence networks to support the protest movements that later led to the removal of the president.
The history of the board is a who’s who of regime change advocates and imperial hawks. The current board includes Anne Applebaum, a popular anti-Russian staff writer at the Atlantic and frequent cable news commentator whose work epitomizes the New Cold War mentality, and Elliott Abrams, a major player in the Iran/Contra scandal who later played a key role in the Trump administration’s campaign to overthrow the Venezuelan government. Victoria Nuland, formerly the foreign policy advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, is a key player in US foreign policy, and was even one of the US officials who was caught meddling behind the scenes to reshape the Ukrainian government in 2014. She served on the NED board in between her time in the State Department for the Obama and Biden administrations. Other former board members include Henry Kissinger, Paul Wolfowitz, Zbigniew Brzezinski and current CIA director William Burns.
After the war started, the NED removed all of its Ukraine projects from its website, though they are still available through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. A look at 2021 projects shows extensive work funding media organizations throughout Ukraine with the ostensible goal of “promot[ing] government accountability” or “foster[ing] independent media.” Despite their overt funding from a well-documented US propaganda organ, none of these organizations’ Twitter accounts contain a “state-affiliated media” label. Even the NED’s own Twitter account does not reference its relationship to the US government.
This is highly relevant to the current war in Ukraine. CHESNO, ZN.UA, ZMiST and Ukrainian Toronto Television, Vox Ukraine are all part of the NED’s media network in Ukraine, yet their Twitter accounts have no state-affiliated label. Furthermore, some of the newsrooms in this network boast extensive ties to other US government organizations. European Pravda, the Ukraine Crisis Media Center and Hromadske—all founded during or shortly after the US-backed Maidan coup in 2014—boast explicit partnerships with NATO. Hromadske and the UCMC also tout partnerships with the US State Department, the US Embassy in Kyiv and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
USAID plays a similar role to the NED. Under the protective cover of humanitarian aid and development projects, the agency serves as a conduit for US regime change operations and soft power influence peddling. Among other things, the organization has been a cover for “promoting democracy” in Nicaragua, and provided half a billion dollars to advance the coup attempt against Venezuela’s elected government.
Kyiv Post and Independent
The most popular recipient of NED funds has been the Kyiv Independent, a reconstitution of another NED-funded newsroom, the Kyiv Post. Though it claims to receive the majority of its funding through advertising and subscriptions, the Post website lists the NED as “donors who sponsored content produced by the Kyiv Post journalists.”
When the Post was temporarily shuttered in a staff dispute in November 2021, many of the journalists formed the Kyiv Independent. They did this with a $200,000 grant from the Canadian government, as well as an emergency grant from the European Endowment for Democracy, an organization headquartered in Brussels that is both modeled after and funded by the NED.
After the outbreak of war, the Independent gained over 2 million Twitter followers and attracted millions of dollars in donations. Staff from the Independent have flooded the US media ecosystem: Its reporters have had op-eds in top US newspapers like the New York Times (3/5/22) and the Washington Post (2/28/22). They often appear on US TV channels like CNN (3/21/22), CBS (12/21/22), Fox News (3/31/22) and MSNBC (4/10/22).
Omitting the newsroom’s ties to the US government, CNN’s Brian Stelter (3/20/22) praised the Independent for going from “a three-month-old startup and relative unknown in the Western world to now one of the leading sources of information on the war in Ukraine.” Its funding drives have been promoted by US outlets like CBS and PBS (MintPress, 4/8/22).
The top staff of the Independent have extensive connections to other US government projects. Contributing editor Liliane Bivings worked on Ukraine projects at the Atlantic Council, a think tank funded by the US and other governments that serves as NATO’s de facto brain trust. Chief financial officer Jakub Parusinski worked with the USAID-funded International Center for Policy Studies (MintPress, 4/8/22).
Chief Executive Officer Daryna Shevchenko previously worked for IREX, an education and development nonprofit created by the State Department and Ford Foundation that still receives most of its funding from the US government. She also co-founded the Media Development Foundation, an organization funded by the NED and the US Embassy in Kyiv to promote “independent” media in Ukraine. Chief operating officer Oleksiy Sorokin got his start at Transparency International, an NGO funded by the US State Department as well as other NATO-friendly governments (Covert Action, 4/13/22).
Boosting US propaganda
Twitter’s policy effectively amounts to providing cover and reach for US propaganda organs. But this policy effect is far from the whole story. Through various mechanisms, Twitter actually boosts US-funded newsrooms and promotes them as trusted sources.
One such mechanism is the curated “Topics” feature. As part of its effort to “elevate reliable information,” Twitter recommends following its own curated feed for the Ukraine War. As of September 2022, Twitter said that this war feed for the Ukraine War had over 38.6 billion “impressions.” Scrolling through the feed shows many examples of the platform boosting US state-affiliated media, with few or no instances of coverage critical of the war effort. Despite their extensive ties to the US government, the Kyiv Independent and Kyiv Post are frequently offered as favored sources for information on the war.
The account has generated a list based on what they claim to be reliable sources on the conflict. The list currently has 55 members. Of these, at least 22 are either US-funded newsrooms, their affiliated journalists. Given the complexity of the funding channels, and the lack of information on some of these newsrooms’ websites, this number is likely an undercount:
New Voice of Ukraine (NED, State Department)
Kyiv Post (NED)
Kyiv Independent (NED)
Anastasiia Lapatina, Oleksiy Sorokin, Anna Myroniuk, Illia Ponomarenko
Media Development Foundation of Georgia (NED, USAID, State Department)
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (USAGM)
Center for European Policy Analysis (NED, State Department)
Anders Ostlund, Alina Polyakova
Atlantic Council (NATO)
Terrell Jermaine Starr
If Twitter applied its own “state-affiliated media” policy consistently, these users wouldn’t be included in such a list. In fact, Twitter would actively diminish the reach of these accounts.
Worldwide propaganda network
The US government currently funds other media organizations that function more blatantly as arms of the state, yet none have the “state-affiliated media” label on their Twitter accounts. These outlets are part of the media apparatus set up to promote the US point of view around the world during the Cold War. The New York Times (12/26/77) once described them as being part of a “worldwide propaganda network built by the CIA.”
The network, known as the “Propaganda Assets Inventory” within the agency, once encompassed around 500 individuals and organizations, ranging from operatives in major media like CBS, Associated Press and Reuters to smaller outlets under the “complete” “editorial control” of the CIA. Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were at the vanguard of this propaganda operation. The Times reported in 1977 that the network resulted in a stream of US media stories that were “purposely misleading or downright false.”
The US government continues to directly operate several of these organizations. These outlets now fall under the auspices of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a federal agency that received $810 million in 2022. That number marks a 27% increase from its 2021 budget, and is more than twice the amount RT received from Russia for its global operations in 2021 (RFE/RL, 8/25/21).
The first “broadcasting standard” listed on the agency website is to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.” While the structure of USAGM ostensibly includes a “firewall” protecting editorial independence, the outlet is unlikely to hire anyone who is not comfortable with this primary goal. Certainly the US government has over USAGM what Twitter elsewhere has defined as “control through financial resources.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
RFE/RL operates on a budget of $126 million and reaches 37 million people across 27 languages. It boasts that its reporting receives “daily citations in global media, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, AP, Reuters, USA Today, Politico, CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC.”
RFE/RL has been stepping up operations in Ukraine. The network says it “serves as a media leader in Ukraine, frequently conducting high-profile interviews that are picked up across Ukraine’s top media outlets.” The news operation includes “a vast network of local news bureaus and an extensive freelance network,” according to USAGM documents. None of the Twitter accounts under the umbrella of RFE/RL have been labeled “state-affiliated media.” This includes RFE/RL Pressroom and RFE/RL’s Persian service, Radio Farda.
Radio Free Asia
Radio Free Asia reaches almost 60 million people across nine languages, mainly focused on East Asian countries. RFA receives a $47.6 million budget, with the mission of “counter[ing] authoritarian disinformation and false narratives.” “As the United States aims to re-engage with global partners on issues of diplomatic and economic importance,” USAGM states, RFA “will need to combat the malign influence of China’s disinformation juggernaut.”
The main RFA account does not have the“state-affiliated media” label, and neither do the accounts for RFA Uyghur, RFA Burmese, RFA Korean, RFA Tibetan, RFA Vietnamese or RFA Cantonese. RFA’s largest channel, RFA Chinese, has 1.1 million followers, but no label.
Voice of America
With a budget of $257 million, Voice of America (VoA) is USAGM’s largest operation. Its 961 employees reach 311.8 million including 40 million in China, and 10 million Iranians. The media network’s goal is to “[tell] America’s story” and “enhance” the “understanding of US policies” in target populations.
Aimed at Iran, VoA Farsi was described in 2019 by one former executive as pushing “blatant propaganda” with “no objectivity or factuality” (Intercept, 8/13/19). During the height of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the outlet became “a mouthpiece of Trump—only Trump and nothing but Trump.” In addition to promoting the US-supported Iranian terrorist group MEK, the outlet “lash[ed] out at people they deem unsupportive of President Donald Trump’s Iran policy.”
Neither the main VoA Twitter account with 1.7 million followers, the VoA Chinese account with 1.8 million followers, nor the VoA Farsi account with 1.7 million followers feature the “state-affiliated media” label.
Office of Cuba Broadcasting
USAGM includes the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), a Miami-based operation that receives $12.9 million a year to “promote freedom and democracy” in Cuba. A recent USAGM report noted OCB’s “ongoing, timely and thorough reporting of the Cuban dissident movement.” According to an OCB fact sheet, Radio Television Marti, the main network overseen by OCB, reaches 11% of the Cuban population each week through audio, video and digital content. The network’s Twitter account does not possess the state-affiliated label.
Middle East Broadcasting Network
USAGM also oversees the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), an Arab-language network headquartered in Springfield, Virginia, whose mission is to “expand the spectrum of ideas, opinions and perspectives” in Middle East/North Africa countries. USAGM states that MBN is “poised to represent America like no other across the region.” The network is “fully funded” with a budget of $108.9 million.
According to the agency, MBN reaches more than 33 million people across 22 MENA countries. Its media reached 76% of the population in non-Kurdish Iraqi territories, and in Palestine, MBN media reached 50%. MBN networks include Alhurra TV, Radio Sawa and MBN Digital. The Alhurra TV Twitter account, with 3.6 million followers, does not contain the “state-affiliated” label.
Each of these operations are funded in whole or in part by governments, yet Twitter does not think that they classify as state-affiliated. Therefore, none of them are labeled, nor are they subjected to the limits that the platform applies to labeled accounts. If Twitter doesn’t consider a newsroom “fully funded” by the US government to be “state-affiliated,” it should be clear that its goal of providing “context” does not apply to the organs of US propaganda. The feature serves only to nudge users away from state funded organizations belonging to states hostile to the US.
Twitter and the establishment
Twitter’s adherence to Western foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Twitter has even openly announced that its company policy includes support for NATO. In 2021, as tensions between Russia and Ukraine were on the rise, Twitter announced that it had removed dozens of Russian accounts as “state-linked operations.” The reason Twitter (2/23/21) cited for the removal was that they were “undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability.” The support for US global objectives has extended to other regions.
In 2019, as Trump was ramping up the coup attempt and brutal sanctions regime against Venezuela, Twitter assisted the US efforts to delegitimize Venezuela’s elected government. Twitter suspended the accounts of Venezuelan government officials and agencies, including the English language account of President Nicolas Maduro himself. At the same time, Twitter “verified” officials in the US-backed self-appointed “government” attempting to overthrow Venezuela’s elected executive (Grayzone, 8/24/19).
A longstanding issue with the platform is its arbitrary enforcement of the rules against critics of US policy. The platform often suspends or bans users for alleged violations with no explanation.
Twitter, like other SiliconValley behemoths, has numerous links to the national security state. An investigation by Middle East Eye (9/30/19) revealed that one of Twitter’s top executives was also a member of one of the British military’s psychological warfare units, the 77th Brigade. Gordon MacMillan, who holds the top editorial position for the Middle East and North Africa at Twitter, joined the UK’s “information warfare” unit in 2015 while he was at Twitter. One UK general told MEE that the unit specialized in developing “the capability to compete in the war of narratives at the tactical level.” The story was met with near total silence in US and UK press (FAIR.org, 10/24/19), and MacMillan still works for Twitter.
Twitter also partners with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a hawkish think tank funded by the military industry and the US government, for its content moderation policies. In 2020, Twitter worked closely with the ASPI to remove over 170,000 low-follower accounts they alleged to be favorable to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Twitter and ASPI have announced a partnership ostensibly aimed at fighting disinformation and misinformation.
Twitter’s Strategic Response Team, in charge of making decisions about which content should be suppressed, was headed by Jeff Carlton, who previously worked for both the CIA and FBI. In fact, MintPress News (6/21/22) reported on the dozens of former FBI agents that have joined Twitter’s ranks over the years. Elon Musk’s controlled leak of internal communications, known as the “Twitter Files,” has renewed attention to the close relationship between the agency and the platform.
Though Twitter has previously denied directly “coordinat[ing] with other entities when making content moderation decisions,” recent reporting has revealed a deep level of integration between federal intelligence agencies, and Twitter’s content moderation policies. In part 6 of the “Twitter Files,” Matt Taibbi reported that the FBI has over 80 agents dedicated to flagging content on the platform and interfacing directly with Twitter leadership. Last year, emails leaked to the Intercept (10/31/22) showed how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Twitter had an established process for content takedown requests from the agency related to election security.
The platform is clearly an important hub for pro-Ukrainian sentiment online, though not all of the activity is organic. In fact, one study (Declassified Australia, 11/3/22) released last year found a deluge of pro Ukrainian bots. Australian researchers studied a sample of over 5 million tweets about the war, and found that 90% of the total were pro-Ukrainian (identified using the #IStandWithUkraine hashtag or variations), and estimated that up to 80% of them were bots. Though researchers did not determine the precise origin of these accounts, it was obvious that they were sponsored by “pro-Ukrainian authorities.” The sheer volume of tweets undoubtedly helped shape online sentiment about the war.
It appears that Washington understands the importance of Twitter in shaping public sentiments. When Musk originally set his sights on buying the platform, the White House even considered opening a national security review of Musk’s business ventures, citing Musk’s “increasingly Russia-friendly stance.” These concerns were prompted by Musk’s plan to bar SpaceX’s StarLink system from being used in Ukraine, after a spat between Musk and a Ukrainian official. The concerns also came after Musk (10/3/22) tweeted out the outlines to a potential peace proposal between Russia and Ukraine. This proposal was met with scorn and shock among American elite circles, where escalation rather than peace is the dominant position (FAIR.org, 3/22/22).
Musk and the national security state
But Musk’s hot take on the Ukraine war should not be taken as proof of Musk’s anti establishment bona fides. Far from being an establishment outsider, Elon Musk himself is a major figure in the military industrial complex, and represents the long tradition of Silicon Valley giants being thoroughly enmeshed in the military and intelligence wars.
Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, is a major military contractor, earning billions of dollars from the US national security state. It has received contracts to launch GPS technology into orbit to assist with the US drone war. The Pentagon has also contracted the company to build missile defense satellites. SpaceX has further won contracts from the Air Force, Space Defense Agency and National Reconnaissance Organization, and has launched spy satellites to be used by the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies (MintPress, 5/31/22).
In fact, SpaceX’s existence is largely owed to military and intelligence ties. One of its earliest backers of the company was the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same military research agency that gave us much of the technology that defines the modern internet age.
Mike Griffin, then the president of the CIA’s venture capital firm In-Q-Tel, was a close associate of Musk’s and was deeply involved in SpaceX’s conception. When Griffin became head of NASA under Bush Jr., he awarded Musk a $396 million dollar contract before SpaceX had even successfully flown a rocket. This later ballooned to a $1 billion contract to resupply the International Space Station.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Musk made headlines by offering to donate his Starlink technology to the Ukrainian government to keep the country online. Starlink, a satellite-based internet provider, was essential to Ukraine’s war effort after the Russian attack disabled much of its traditional military communications. It has enabled Ukrainians to quickly share battlefield intelligence, and connect with US support troops to perform “telemaintenance.”
Musk’s offer to “donate” the technology earned him a lot of positive press, but it was quietly revealed later that the US government had been paying SpaceX millions of dollars for the technology—despite what SpaceX officials had told the public. According to the Washington Post (4/8/22), the money was funneled through USAID, an organization that has long been a tool of US regime change efforts, and a front for covert intelligence operations.
Multiple reports have called the Starlink technology a game-changer in the war. The Pentagon’s director of electronic warfare fawned over Starlink’s capabilities, calling them “eye-watering.” The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff honored Musk by name, saying that he symbolized “the combination of the civil and military cooperation and teamwork that makes the United States the most powerful country in space.”
Ukraine isn’t the only area of interest where Musk’s Starlink is involved. As protests began to rock Iran over the country’s treatment of women, the US saw an opportunity to increase internal, destabilizing pressure on the government—long a goal of US policy in the region. Amid Iran’s crackdown on the internet, the Biden administration solicited Musk for assistance in using Starlink to circumvent blackouts. Later, Starlink terminals began to be smuggled into the country.
The relationship between Musk and the security state is so strong that one official even told Bloomberg (10/20/22) that “the US government would also use Starlink in the event of telecommunications outage,” hinting at links to high-level national contingency planning.
Continuity of governance?
The conversation surrounding Twitter has centered around whether or not Elon Musk is a free-speech advocate, though little has focused on the implications of a military contractor having complete control over such an important platform. Though Musk may (or may not) be stepping down as CEO, the platform will remain his domain.
Many things have changed under Musk’s Twitter, but Twitter’s role as a megaphone for US government–funded media has not. It would take a large research study to understand precisely how much impact Twitter’s misapplication of its own policies has on the propagation. But even without this data, it is clear that the platform’s design serves to nudge users away from most media funded by Washington-unfriendly governments, and, in the case of the Ukraine War, push users toward media funded by the US government. Musk’s status as a military contractor only underscores that challenging US foreign policy objectives is unlikely to be a priority for the company.