Fact check: FBI paid Twitter for information requests, not censoring information

The claim: The FBI paid Twitter $3.5 million to 'censor' information from the public

A Dec. 19 Facebook post (direct link, archived link) features an image of an email sent to a former lawyer for Twitter. The email says the lecompany collected $3.4 million as "reimbursement for the time spent processing requests from the FBI" from October 2019 to February 2021.

"It turns out the FBI was paying Twitter millions to censor Americans," reads the post's caption.

The post was shared more than 1,500 times in a month. Another version of the claim on Instagram was liked more than 80,000 times before it was deleted.

Our rating: False

The claim wrongly conflates two separate events. First, documents released by new Twitter owner Elon Musk show the FBI flagged Twitter accounts the agency believed violated Twitter’s terms of service. Second, another document shows the FBI paid Twitter $3.4 million for Twitter’s processing of information requests the FBI made through the Stored Communications Act. The $3.4 million is unrelated to the FBI flagging accounts.

Payment not connected to FBI reports of accounts

The post refers to a lengthy Twitter thread by journalist Matt Taibbi detailing internal documents that Musk apparently fed Taibbi. Musk promoted the tweets, saying, "This will be awesome," and dubbed them "The Twitter Files."

The documents show the company's internal discussions about how to handle a 2020 New York Post story on Hunter Biden's laptop, how Twitter restricted accounts that broke its rules, which included some high-profile right-wing users, as well as discussions leading up to the company's decision to ban former President Donald Trump.

The documents, which USA TODAY could not independently verify, also include several FBI communications, which sparked this and similar claims.

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The $3.4 million figure comes from a Dec. 19 tweet from author Michael Shellenberger showing an email from former Twitter general counselJim Baker. It is the only reference in the Twitter documents to $3.4 million dollars received by Twitter from the federal government.

In the email, Baker says the company collected $3.4 million from the FBI as reimbursement for time spent processing requests from the agency. Nowhere in the email does Baker say the money was paid to censor information, take down posts, suspend accounts or do anything relating to content moderation.

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The claim that the FBI asked Twitter to censor information appears to come from a series of tweets from Taibbi showing emails from the FBI notifying Twitter of accounts the agency believed violated Twitter’s terms of service. Those documents are the only ones in the series of Twitter documents showing the FBI identifying Twitter accounts or posts to Twitter for any reason.

Nowhere in any of the documents does the FBI demand the accounts or their contents be suspended or taken down.

Notifying Twitter of accounts that may violate the company’s terms of service is an action any user can take.

$3.4 million refers to Stored Communications Act orders, expert says

Twitter’s flagging of potentially violative content is “unrelated to the monetary compensation,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, a research scholar specializing in cybersecurity and electronic surveillance at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Pfefferkorn served as private counsel for Twitter from 2011 to 2015, but she said she has no direct knowledge of Twitter's handling of law enforcement requests during the period the Twitter documents were produced. She said her knowledge is from publicly available sources.

Pfefferkorn said the information requests for which Twitter received compensation refer to orders made in accordance with the Stored Communications Act. According to a Twitter transparency report from 2020, these requests are issued through orders from legal authorities like subpoenas, warrants or court orders.

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Information sought by the FBI could include public or private tweets, the content of a user’s direct messages, the email or IP address associated with the account, or when the account was created, Pfefferkorn said. Law enforcement agencies may request this evidence when relevant to a criminal investigation.

"The Stored Communications Act is about the disclosure of information, not the removal of information," Pfefferkorn told USA TODAY. "It does not include any provisions for law enforcement to request removal of user accounts or posts."

Federal law says Twitter is entitled to compensation for the cost of producing or preserving this data.

Twitter’s January 2021 transparency report says the U.S. submitted more government requests for user data than any other country during the first half of 2020, and the FBI was one of the top three agencies with the greatest percentage of requests for the six previous reporting periods.

“It thus seems unsurprising to me that compensation for FBI requests alone would come to $3.4 million over a time period of about 16 months,” Pfefferkorn said.

USA TODAY reached out to the social media user who shared the claim, Twitter and the FBI for comment.

Our fact-check sources:

  • Riana Pfefferkorn, Jan. 4, Email interview with USA TODAY

  • Michael Shellenberger, Dec. 19, 2022, Tweet

  • Matt Taibbi, Dec. 16, 2022, Tweet

  • Matt Taibbi, Dec. 16, 2022, Tweet

  • Matt Taibbi, Dec. 16, 2022, Tweet

  • Matt Taibbi, Dec. 16, 2022, Tweet

  • Matt Taibbi, Dec. 16, 2022, Tweet

  • Matt Taibbi, Dec. 24, 2022, Tweet

  • Matt Taibbi, Dec. 24, 2022, Tweet

  • USA TODAY, Dec. 5, 2022, Elon Musk's 'Twitter files': Emails reveal internal struggle on handling of Hunter Biden laptop

  • Cornell Law School, accessed Jan. 10, 18 U.S. Code § 2706 – Cost reimbursement


  • Encyclopedia of Big Data, April 17, 2017, Content Moderation

  • Twitter, accessed Jan. 10, United States Transparency Report, Jan. through June 2020

  • Business Insider, Dec. 6, Elon Musk confirmed the firing of Twitter deputy general counsel James Baker for allegedly interfering in the publication of the Twitter Files

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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: FBI gave $3 million to Twitter for information requests

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