The layoffs included a number of people scheduled to be on call this weekend and early next week to monitor for signs of foreign disinformation, spam and other problematic content surrounding the election, a former employee told The Washington Post. As of Friday morning, employee access to internal tools used for content moderation continued to be restricted, limiting employees’ ability to respond to misinformation.
Twitter had become one of America’s most influential platforms for disseminating accurate voting information, and the days leading up to the election have often been critical moments in which corporate and campaign officials maintained an almost constant dialogue about potential risks.
But a representative from one of the party’s national committees said they are seeing hours-long delays in responses from their contacts on Twitter, raising fears of workplace chaos and sudden resignations taking a toll on the platform’s ability to quickly respond to developments. The representative spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Some researchers who track online threats said they also feared the cuts would sever lines of communication between the company and police that have been used to identify people threatening voter intimidation or offline violence.
“Law enforcement can lose precious minutes identifying that person who we believe poses a real threat,” said Katherine Keneally, senior research director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies political extremism and polarization.
Keneally said she had already seen an increase in threatening content related to the election. She pointed to a post in which a user wrote about the need to “pour bleach or gasoline” at ballot boxes, a target of right-wing conspiracy theories about systematic voter fraud.
President Biden on Friday criticized Twitter’s role in spreading false information.
“Elon Musk goes out and buys an outfit that spews lies all over the world,” he said while attending a political fundraiser in Chicago. “There are no editors anymore in America.”
Communications officials at Twitter did not respond to requests for comment. Many of them were among those laid off.
Yoel Roth, the company’s head of security and integrity and one of the few top executives to survive Musk’s takeover, tweeted Friday night that the company’s “core moderation capabilities remain in place.” He said the cuts to Twitter’s Trust & Safety division were about 15 percent, as opposed to the nearly 50 percent cuts across the company.
“With early voting underway in the United States, our efforts to ensure election integrity — including harmful misinformation that could suppress voting and combat state-sponsored information operations — remain a top priority,” he tweeted.
Advertisers on the run, workers in fear: Welcome to Elon Musk’s Twitter
Musk, the world’s richest person who spent $44 billion on the site, has said the massive layoffs of the company’s 7,500 employees will help prepare it for future success, and he has instructed workers to roll out services he says will safeguard the platform as a digital city square.
However, some of his more aggressive changes are also causing concern. Under Musk, the company is pushing a service — planned to be unveiled Monday, a day before the election — that would give any paying user the “verified” tick icon now offered only to politicians, journalists and other notables who have verified their identity. The move, some political officials said, could create deep confusion in the final hours of the race.
“Imitation of elections [officials] is a serious concern for us as the platform considers changes to their verifications,” said Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors. “We hope Twitter management implements any changes ahead of the election carefully and recognizes the critical role the platform plays in the election information ecosystem.”
Among the cuts to Twitter was its curation team, a key part of the company’s efforts to guide users to reliable news sources and crack down on viral hoaxes and conspiracy theories. The team has worked for years to counter election-related falsehoods, such as claims that postal ballots would be discarded, and provide credible information in cases where losing candidates have falsely claimed victory.
In October 2020, ahead of the US presidential election, the team added context to any trends that could be found in Twitter’s prime real estate—its “For You” and “What’s Happening” boxes—on the app and website. As recently as two weeks ago, Twitter touted the team’s debunking efforts as a key aspect of it approach to midway in 2022.
But on Friday, several Twitter employees told The Washington Post that the entire team appeared to have been cut amid Musk’s layoffs. Edward Perez, a former director of product for Twitter and an expert on election integrity, said: “For Musk to back away from Twitter’s positive efforts to preempt or debunk false claims, just days before a major election, is simply terrible timing.”
Twitter will charge $8 a month for verification. What you need to know.
The cuts have also rattled members of civil rights and advocacy groups who met with Musk earlier this week to share their concerns about his takeover. Musk had “promised to keep and enforce the election integrity measures that were on Twitter’s books before his takeover,” Jessica González, a co-director of the group Free Press, said Friday. “With today’s mass layoffs, it’s clear that Musk’s actions betray his words. … Even before Musk took over, this operation was dangerously under-resourced.”
Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil rights group Color of Change, took issue with Musk’s proposal to change Twitter’s “verified” system just before the midterm, saying it “could have [an] unprecedented impact on election chaos.”
“Any right-wing troll can pay $8 on Monday, get a blue tick and then change their username to ‘CNN’ or ‘Georgia Secretary of State’ and appear verified and call racists,” he said.
Musk meeting with civil rights groups upsets his fans
Even before the layoffs, experts had warned that Twitter did not have enough staff to handle content moderation. An audit commissioned by the company’s whistleblower Peiter Zatko from the company Alethea Group found that Twitter’s integrity team was “persistently understaffed” and “has had to make significant trade-offs”.
During the US election, Twitter set up a select group that included people from outside the central content moderation units to help identify threats; the company’s ability to staff this unit will probably be affected by the cuts.
Researchers who study election misinformation said there is also uncertainty about what the Twitter resignations will mean when voters across the country go to the polls.
Twitter cannot afford to be one of the world’s most influential websites
Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said during a virtual conference on Friday that Twitter has been “massively disrupted” and that she is “waiting to see how the dynamic changes without even knowing what changes have happened under the hood” .
“Some of the ways the platform worked yesterday are not going to be the way they work today, tomorrow and at the election on Tuesday,” she said.
Joan Donovan, director of research at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, said she had also seen reports of increased coordinated activity, hateful content and harassing messages. But she said she was encouraged by Musk’s decision not to immediately allow banned users back on the platform, which she predicted would avert “the avalanche of misinformation that many expect.”
On alternative platforms, meanwhile, there was rejoicing over the possibility of less content moderation on Twitter. One user with more than 72,000 followers on chat app Telegram celebrated that the expected changes took place “JUST BEFORE THE US ELECTIONS”, so “whatever happens on Tuesday … a lot more people will be talking about it on Twitter”.
For Donovan, this expectation can actually reveal the impact of misinformation. “Because the chaotic changes on Twitter have played out in public, many people are already going to be skeptical of the information they get from the platform,” she said. “It is not considered a very reliable source at this time.”
Some employees in roles related to the gap year period announced on Twitter that they had been let go. Michele Austin, the director of US and Canadian public policy at the company, wrote that she helped lead the platform’s 2022 midterms and was “in denial” that her time at the company was over.
Kevin Sullivan, a civic integrity specialist who said on LinkedIn that he led editorial planning for the 2022 midterms and election disinformation, also announced his resignation.
“He couldn’t have waited until Wednesday? #Election2022“, he tweeted.
Matt Brown, Naomi Nix, Will Oremus, Brittany Shammas and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this report.