Twitter cuts spur concerns about US midterms, human rights

Mr Elon Musk slashed over half the staff, affecting almost every team at the company.  PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO – Elon Musk’s broad-based cuts at Twitter are leading current and former employees to question whether the social network will have the resources to keep crucial systems like content moderation running effectively, including during the US midterm elections on Tuesday.

Mr Musk on Thursday and Friday slashed over half the staff, affecting almost every team at the company. 

Product and engineering teams were gutted by well over 50 per cent, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

Other groups – like communications, marketing, human rights and diversity – were almost completely eliminated.

Those who were suddenly restricted from email and Slack were left frantically messaging in other chap apps and chat groups to understand who was still employed, said the people, who requested anonymity discussing non-public information.  

“It’s like a fire,” said one former worker. “People are looking for survivors.” This person asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

The dramatic scaling down of the company’s staff immediately drew scrutiny from Twitter insiders, outside groups and disinformation watchers.

They say it’s unclear how Twitter will manage its sprawling network, which has an outsized impact on global political and cultural conversation, with far fewer people at the helm.

Twitter has historically been a major tool for following news during elections, as the first place information gets reported before it ends up on television or other social networks.

Now, the site “has been massively disrupted”, becoming vulnerable to problems during high-traffic moments, or coordinated disinformation campaigns, said Dr. Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Centre for an Informed Public. “Some of the ways that that platform worked yesterday are not going to be the ways that they work today, tomorrow and going into the election on Tuesday.”

Twitter’s curation team, which wrote context for trending topics and worked with media groups to publish content that fact-checked major news events, has been dissolved, two people say.

The legal policy team, which removes content based on government and legal requests and reviews law enforcement inquiries for user data, faced “massive cuts”, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The communications team at Twitter, responsible for engaging with journalists and putting out press releases, was cut from nearly 100 people to two, other people said.

The partners team, which builds and maintains relationships with celebrity users, like athletes, actors and musicians, was almost completely eliminated.

Also fuelling the tension over the lack of content controls is Mr Musk’s plan to allow anyone to pay for a verification check mark on Twitter as soon as Monday.

It is part of a new initiative to drive revenue through subscriptions to Twitter Blue, its premium product.  If enacted as planned, it would mean anyone would be able to pay US$8 (S$11) to have their account look more legitimate, adding a risk they would impersonate candidates or government entities.

“The combination of massive layoffs, along with the end of verified users less than a week before the US election takes place, creates a combustible situation that could burst into flames at any point,“ said Melissa Ryan, chief executive officer of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation. “Bad actors have a new tool to spread disinformation, harm, and cause chaos, and Twitter now lacks the capacity and institutional memory to deal with the inevitable problems.”

Beyond the election, if Twitter becomes more vulnerable to bad actors, the company’s bottom line could be affected.

Already, some advertisers have paused spending or expressed concern about the period of uncertainty. 

Mr Musk tweeted on Friday morning that “Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists”.

Twitter’s marketing organisation was among the groups hit hardest, with at most a couple dozen employees remaining from a team that had close to 400 people, according to two people. The ad sales organisation was less impacted by the job cuts, people familiar with the matter said.

Still, one point of concern is that the senior level employees who would typically be called to help soothe advertiser concerns – people like head of sales Jean-Philippe Maheu or chief marketing officer Leslie Berland – were fired from the company earlier this week.

Mr Musk addressed the job cuts in a tweet late Friday. “Regarding Twitter’s reduction in force, unfortunately there is no choice when the company is losing” more than US$4 million a day, he said in the post. “Everyone exited was offered 3 months of severance.”

Twitter’s US trust and safety team, which handles content moderation, was also impacted by layoffs, affecting 15 per cent of staff, according to Yoel Roth, the head of safety and integrity at the company, who remains.

“With early voting underway in the US, our efforts on election integrity – including harmful misinformation that can suppress the vote and combating state-backed information operations – remain a top priority,” he said on Twitter. “While we said goodbye to incredibly talented friends and colleagues yesterday, our core moderation capabilities remain in place.”

Earlier this week Bloomberg reported that many of the tools that team uses to enforce its content moderation policies had been frozen, and those tools were still unavailable for most people as of Friday.

Mr Musk previously told civil rights leaders that internal moderators would have access back by the end of the week. Mr Roth said access will be restored “in the coming days”.

Globally, the trust and safety team was decimated, including in Ireland, the company’s main outpost for monitoring the rest of the world, according to another person.

“The entire Human Rights team has been cut from the company,” Shannon Raj Singh, the counsel for that team, said on Twitter, adding that she was proud of her team for helping protect users during conflicts in Ukraine, Ethiopia and elsewhere. BLOOMBERG

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