It’s Time to Make Twitter Better

I joined Twitter five-and-a-half years ago, in the summer of 2012, and immediately found it a heady experience. Here was a place of free expression, where experts and average people could mingle and discuss issues of the day. There were high and lows; some dialogs got mired in silliness, while others led to genuine insights. Twitter was unique – and a lot of fun.

Then, in June 2013, Edward Snowden landed in Hong Kong, on the lam from Uncle Sam, and then defected to Moscow, where he remains almost five years later. As the only former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer speaking openly about that sensational case as it unfolded, I was in high demand. As it happened, a decade earlier when I was working for NSA, I predicted that due to lax agency security policies (this required not clairvoyance, merely paying attention) something very much like Snowden was bound to happen. My comments on Snowden were critical of our Intelligence Community, which had allowed this nightmare to happen.  From the outset, I pointed out that the NSA contractor turned defector was far from the pure-hearted “whistleblower” he claimed to be.

This view, now commonly accepted, was controversial in the summer of 2013, and I incurred the skepticism of Snowden’s media fans, as well as the wrath of his cultish followers. Kremlin sycophants like Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald attacked me regularly for pointing out that Snowden and WikiLeaks were dancing the Kremlin’s tune, and before long I was inundated by online trolls. Three years before Moscow weaponized its trolls to sway a presidential election, they went after me on Twitter with gusto.

Suddenly I had platoons of trolls attacking me at once. By the latter half of 2013, I was blocking dozens of harassing accounts daily – and they were reading from a Russian playbook that became familiar to millions of Americans in 2016. The full range of Kremlin trolling was on display, between ceaseless nasty tweets and doxing of myself, my family, and friends. This took a toll on me and my life, but I never considered a halt to telling the truth about Snowden and Russian intelligence to make it all stop.

I’ve had dozens of impersonation accounts set up to harass me, and I stopped counting how many trolls and bots have tried to derail my truth-telling on Twitter: many thousands by now. It’s been a bumpy ride, but over the last couple years I’ve gotten to say, “I told you so” too many times to count. I was right about Snowden, WikiLeaks, and the Russians. Even though my warnings weren’t heeded, I predicted a lot of the mess that America is in right now thanks to Kremlin Trolls, disinformation, and Active Measures disseminated via Twitter and other social media. I was Patient Zero for their online bacillus, and I survived – albeit at high cost.

I expected that Twitter would finally get its act together in the dreadful aftermath of 2016, when the White House was occupied by a man who extolled WikiLeaks, refused to admit that Russian spies and lies had harmed our country, and acted like Vladimir Putin’s asset – to use the term cited by our country’s most experienced spy-boss. Alas, I was wrong. Twitter has made some minor alterations – a few bots blocked, some notorious trolls banned – but nothing substantial has changed. Twitter remains a playground for the Kremlin Trolls, bots, and miscreants who made this promising social media forum, to cite President Trump, a shithole.

Twitter has it within its power to banish troublemakers, but they haven’t done so. Minor algorithm alterations would do away with 90 percent of the bots immediately, while serious enforcement of the so-called Twitter Rules would do away with most trolls nearly as fast. However, that won’t happen, because if Twitter admitted how many of its followers are bots rather than live humans, its already beleaguered stock price would likely plummet even further.

There is real risk here, since Congress is angry and wants reform before the 2018 midterm election, which the Russians are sure to meddle in. Twitter’s nightmare scenario is a Democratic majority in Congress in January 2019 that’s out for blood against the social media companies that allowed Kremlin Trolls to help elect Donald Trump. However, since Twitter can’t reform itself without blowing up its business model, they seem to be buying time now, not knowing what else to do.

In the meantime, trolls and bots continue to proliferate and harass. Nasty online conduct by Twitter mobs lead to suicides so often now it’s barely newsworthy. I recently lost a Twitter friend to suicide after he was harassed by Kremlin Trolls and bots until he cracked, and that brought it home to me. No social media platform is worth a human life. Every tweet I send gets trolling back, often of a rancid sort, plus they harass my followers who respond to me. Since I have more than quarter-million followers, it’s clear that Moscow’s effort to make life unpleasant for me and the online community around me is as robust as ever.

Therefore, it’s time to do something about it. I’m not going to delete my @20committee account on Twitter, but I’m moving serious discussions to a private feed called @TheSpyBrief. I’ll still post some things (cat pics especially) on my public account, but if you want expert chat about intelligence and national security – which, after all, is why I signed up for Twitter in the first place – I’m moving that to a new private channel where I can effectively filter out trolls and bots, thereby allowing serious discussion again without harassment of the participants.

My new private feed is @TheSpyBrief, and I invite you to join me there by subscribing (you can only subscribe through my Premo page – clicking the Twitter “Follow” button will not work). It’s not free, but it’s not expensive either: roughly 30 cents per day. Per the hoary Internet mantra: if you’re not paying, you are the product. I’ve kept the price low so that as many people as possible will join me at @TheSpyBrief. I promise it will be fun and engaging, and all users will be able to direct message me and exchange ideas. This will be a private discussion community about espionage and national security, with no Kremlin Trolls allowed.

Any trolling will be banned without delay, and since we’ll have traceable payment information, anything that smacks of state-sponsored activity will be reported to the appropriate authorities. I’ve never minded giving away my expertise for free, but I’ve grown tired of doing so amid nonstop harassment of myself and my online friends and followers. This new platform offers a path to reasoned debate about important national security issues of the day – and none more so than espionage and the role of Kremlin spies and lies in our public life.

This is an experiment that I’m excited to try out. If it doesn’t work right, we’ll find something else that does. The dialog won’t cease, it’s too important for that. And if you don’t like it, you can cancel at any time. Twitter remains full of promise, if they ever get rid of trolls and bots. Until they do, I invite you to join me at @TheSpyBrief so we can all take part in the serious public policy discussion that America and the West need right now.