The real story is about who, not how many, were laid off by Twitter
On Thursday morning, I spoke with a Twitter employee on a team responsible for fighting misinformation— their entire team was laid off by the end of the day. Their absence was evident within hours.
There’s a lot to unpack about Twitter’s implosion under Elon Musk. This is the second part in a short series that explains how Twitter’s devolution poses a threat to American democracy. You can read the first part, here. The bottom line is this: Musk chose to decimate Twitter’s workforce and feed chaos on the eve of a U.S. general election. We don’t have time to figure out why— we need to get on the same page in order to defend American democracy.
TL; DR: Since his hostile takeover of Twitter, Elon Musk has spent nearly every hour of his tenure issuing misleading statements about his commitment to content moderation and promising to fight misinformation. In reality, he’s fired or laid off the vast majority of full-time employees responsible for keeping hateful conduct and misinformation off the platform— and it shows.
(Mis)leading by example
The day he assumed control of Twitter, Elon Musk shared an open letter addressed to “Dear Twitter Advertisers” in which the sought to assuage concerns about hateful content and misinformation on his platform. His letter read, in part, that “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape” and that the “platform must be warm and welcoming to all.”
Within 24 hours, the frequency, volume, and intensity of hate speech on Musk’s platform surged.
Speaking to my own experience: the harassment prompted me to close my account to new followers (i.e. go private) and to restrict access to my direct message inbox (i.e. close DMs). But my experience wasn’t unique.
Data collected by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a cyber-social threat analysis group, shows that “the use of the n-word […] increased nearly 500%” during the first 12 hours of Mr. Musk’s tenure as majority owner/CEO of Twitter. NCRI noted, “Evidence suggests that bad actors are trying to test the limits on @Twitter. Several posts on [message boards that cater to hate and extremism] encourage users to amplify derogatory slurs.”
That was just the beginning. On day 4 of his tenure, Musk amplified a far-right conspiracy theory regarding the attack on the husband of U.S. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. As reported by Axios:
“Musk cited a widely discredited website that implied the brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul, wasn’t carried out by an unhinged far-right blogger — but rather was linked to an anti-LGTBQ "theory" about a skirmish at a local bar.” — Sarah Fischer, author of Axios Media Trends
Then, on day 9, Musk tweeted that “Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged.” That tweet was posted 9-16 hours after most of the staff responsible for content moderation were notified that they were being laid off. You read that right: by the time he sent that tweet, Musk had already eliminated entire teams responsible for battling misinformation, preventing targeted harassment, and adjudicating hateful conduct on the platform.
These are not the actions of a leader who is committed to ensuring that his platform isn’t a “free-for-all hellscape.” These are not the actions of any person who is doing their part to ensure that Twitter is “warm and welcoming to all.” These are the actions of an impulsive individual who is willing to mislead the public to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.
The end of Twitter’s rapid response team
The Curation Team functioned a lot like a digital rapid response team within Twitter. They were responsible for:
preventing hateful hashtags and phrases from going viral
contextualizing trending topics by adding short blurbs to the Explore section, and
mitigating the impact of misinformation during breaking news cycles by creating Moments— curated content from Twitter Verified and trusted news sources.
The reason I know all of this— in addition to the timing, sequence, and impact of Musk’s layoffs— is because, until Thursday, I was serving as an external advisor to Twitter’s Curation Team. That morning, I spoke with one of my contacts at Twitter to inform them that I could not, in good faith, continue to serve on the independent advisory board— I’d seen enough to know where things were headed under Musk.
By the end of the day, rumors that Twitter employees were locked out of their corporate accounts began to surface across social media. The following morning, I emailed my contact to ask if they’d been affected— and to extend an offer to help them find a role elsewhere. A response landed in my inbox several hours before Musk asserted “Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation.” The message was shocking and heartbreaking: the entire Curation Team had been laid off effective immediately. Musk eliminated the entire team without warning or justification— all that remains is an outdated website.
The heart and soul of Twitter is gone
With the Curation Team out of the picture, Twitter turned into a free-for-all hellscape almost immediately. Anti-semitic topics and hashtags began trending within hours. With nobody to curate content, the Trending page has become nothing more than an algorithmically-generated list of words and phrases:
In addition, the page dedicated to US Elections is frozen in time. All of the curated content under the “Midterms 2022: Know the Facts” subsection is at least a week old. The section that aggregates news articles from trusted sources hasn’t been updated since November 3rd— the day the entire Curation Team was locked out of Twitter’s corporate network.
The individuals on the Curation Team cared deeply about their work. I know for a fact that the Curation Team worked until the very end— the timestamps on their work will forever serve as proof of their commitment to their purpose. And that purpose was singular: protect the integrity of the public conversation. Full stop.
They worked tirelessly to respond to a continuous news cycle that spanned every time zone— and they did so in real-time. Few persons outside of Twitter knew the team even existed, that is until, the team no longer existed. They made their presence known through their actions, not their words. Unlike Musk, they actually took steps to ensure that Twitter’s platform was warm and welcoming to all. And now, they’re gone.
The members of the Curation Team— along with members of several other teams that made Twitter our digital town square— are gone. The Accessibility Team? Gone. The Human Rights Team? Gone.
The heart and soul of Twitter is gone.
Up next: Where do we go from here?
We can debate the merits of other platforms until we’re blue in the face, but that’s simply not how any of this works. This post offers a crash course on network effects, their quintessential role in social media, and the data showing that Mastodon is the place to be (for now)
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I deactivated my twitter account today after reading Elon's tweet telling his followers to elect Republicans in tomorrow's midterm elections. The depravity of his tweet about the hammer attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband when the 82-year-old man was in hospital with a broken skull and cuts to his hand and arm, made me decide that I would be leaving the platform in a matter of days, and today was the day. I feel good about it.