Twitter lays off employees who fight misinformation

Chelsea Stahl

Mass layoffs at Twitter on Friday battered the teams primarily responsible for keeping the platform free of misinformation, potentially hobbling the company’s capabilities four days before the end of voting in Tuesday’s midterm elections, one current and six former Twitter employees familiar with the cuts told NBC News, five of whom had been recently laid off.

Two former Twitter employees and one current employee warned the layoffs could bring chaos around the elections, as they hit especially hard on teams responsible for the curation of trending topics and for the engineering side of “user health,” which works on content moderation and site integrity. The seven people asked to withhold their names out of worry over professional retribution and because they weren’t authorized to speak for the company.

CEO Elon Musk, who’s facing sizable future debt payments and declining revenue at Twitter, said the cuts were needed to ensure the health of the company’s long-term finances a week after he bought it for $44 billion.

The cuts appeared to affect many people whose jobs were to keep Twitter from becoming overwhelmed by prohibited content, such as hateful conduct and targeted harassment, the seven sources said.

Twitter has not announced any moderation policy changes, and earlier this week, Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, said the company was remaining vigilant against attempts to manipulate conversations about the midterms. Musk has said the company won’t allow anyone back on Twitter who had been previously banned for at least a few more weeks.

But Gita Johar, a Columbia University business professor who has studied misinformation on Twitter, said the job cuts risk turning the site into a “free-for-all with rumors, conspiracy theories and falsehoods taking hold on the platform and in people’s imagination.”

Twitter had not released public figures about which teams had been cut the most, but the layoffs were widespread. In an exchange at an investor conference Friday, Musk appeared to confirm that his team had laid off half the company’s workforce, according to CNBC.

“Elon will own a company without employees,” a source inside Twitter told CNBC.

An email to Twitter’s public relations team was not immediately returned Friday. Some members of the team tweeted that they had been laid off.

Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, tweeted early Friday evening: "While we said goodbye to incredibly talented friends and colleagues yesterday, our core moderation capabilities remain in place."

He added that layoffs affected about 15% of the company's trust and safety teams with "front-line moderation staff experiencing the least impact."

"With early voting underway in the US, our efforts on election integrity — including harmful misinformation that can suppress the vote and combatting state-backed information operations — remain a top priority," he continued.

Musk retweeted Roth's thread and added: "Again, to be crystal clear, Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged."

He also tweeted that "hateful speech at times this week decline *below* our prior norms, contrary to what you may read in the press."

Twitter’s curation team, which had a variety of roles across the platform, including coordinating the detection and publishing of moments meant to debunk misinformation, appears to be gone, one source said. The team had recently published an explainer about how it tried to keep information accurate and impartial.

Andrew Haigh, a London-based curation lead, said on Twitter that the team “is no more.”

“Unfortunately, the platform’s history of transparency and supporting research may be just that: history,” said Kate Starbird, a professor of design and engineering at the University of Washington who studies misinformation.

Starbird said it remained to be seen how potential misinformation around the midterms might be affected.

“We were already expecting a surge in rumors and disinformation around the election, even before Musk taking the reins,” she said.

“But the mass layoffs mean that we’ll get to see what an unmoderated major platform truly looks like in 2022, in an era of algorithmic manipulation and networked toxicity, during a massive online convergence event with huge political stakes.”

The roughly 100-person team tasked with Twitter Blue, the site’s subscription service, was also slashed, according to one former employee. Most of the team’s engineers and product managers were fired on Friday and replaced with a “rag tag team” from other parts of the company, that would build the service into a vehicle for verification, the employee said.

One current and two former employees were also concerned about a planned product that would allow Twitter users to buy verification badges. That could potentially, depending on the rules around the program, allow anyone to release disinformation from official-looking accounts or impersonate election officials or public figures as votes are being cast and counted in the midterms, those sources said.

Musk had promised to make the site’s verification feature, which was formerly used to confirm the identity of celebrities and public officials, open to purchase for $8. Bloomberg reported that sources inside the company said the plan is to ship it by as soon as Monday. NBC News has not verified that report.

One current and two former employees, some of whom were let go in the thousands of layoffs on Friday morning, said they were worried about the feature, noting they didn’t see significant enforcement mechanisms to make sure users with the verification checks are who they say they are.

“Twitter isn’t prepared for that scale,” said one Twitter employee who survived Friday’s layoffs and asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal company projects.

“I expect a ton of cybersecurity attacks on Monday,” the day the new verification system is proposed to go into place, the employee said.

The new feature could hypothetically allow users to impersonate public officials or politicians and disseminate false news as votes roll in.

“That’s exactly the problem,” said the Twitter employee who remained with the company, adding that currently “Elon literally has no plans to stop that.”

One Twitter employee who was laid off on Friday said the plan might not launch on time because only a “skeleton crew” of engineers is left at the company and so it might not be technically possible. The Twitter employee said that, as of the layoffs, the plan was that “there’s not going to be any verification of ID” to acquire a verification badge.

“He thinks the bots won’t pay money, so anyone without a blue mark will be a bot, in his logic,” said a Twitter employee who is still at the company.

The removal of teams core to Twitter’s moderation and trust and safety efforts combined with the new verification system have the potential to change one of the world’s central information hubs days before U.S. midterm elections end. Misinformation and violent threats remain an issue on social media platforms, and U.S. law enforcement is already on high alert for conspiracy-driven conflict.

Laura Edelson, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University who studies online political communication, said she has already observed an uptick of content on Twitter that violates the company’s rules.

“​​What I think we saw is a little preview of what Twitter is like without the trust and safety team having access to the tools that they need to do their jobs,” she said. “I think that’s only a preview of what we’ll see if the trust and safety team either is gutted or just doesn’t exist.”

Edelson added that Twitter’s growth as a platform coincided with the growth of its moderation efforts, making it so the company could employ recommendation systems to algorithmically promote content while also making sure offensive posts or misinformation did not spread as widely. Without those checks and balances, she warned Twitter could become a far different platform.

“I think we’re used to the professionalization of platforms where they do have trust and safety features, and I also think we remember a time when these platforms were just smaller and they had fewer protections because they didn’t need quite so many,” she said. “But all of the major social media platforms, they became a lot more accelerative maybe 10 years ago.”

“It’s like when you know your car has brakes, you’re willing to go faster,” Edelson added. “Now they’ve taken the brakes off the car.”

One laid-off Twitter employee told NBC News that “the only saving grace is that he changes his mind on things all the time.”

“There were some incredibly talented people who didn’t deserve this,” said a current Twitter employee. “But Elon is looking for yes men, not people who actually know stuff.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com