Elon Musk began firing hundreds of Twitter employees on Friday, four days before the midterm elections, including members of the teams that work on U.S. elections and content moderation on the high-profile social-media platform.
Tweets flooded the platform on Friday, many using the hashtags #LoveWhereYouWork and #OneTeam, as employees let others know that they had been let go. Many of those posting had previously worked in roles including public policy, trust and safety, communications, engineering, marketing and human resources.
Half of Twitter’s public policy team was cut, including members of a team handling verification of politicians’ accounts, according to a person close to the company who requested anonymity. That work will now be folded into a team rolling out a subscription service that is expected to launch on Nov. 7.
Since buying Twitter last week, the tech billionaire has insisted that the company’s content-moderation and disinformation policies remain in force, and has sought to placate advertisers who were skittish about his promises to restore more free-wheeling content to its news feed. Late on Friday, he tweeted that “Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged.”
Friday’s layoffs, however, appear to be adding fuel to the anxieties of both users and advertisers that Twitter is gutting its ability to keep tabs on who and what shows up on its platform. And the across-the-board cuts come just as the company’s moderation systems are expected to be tested during the midterms.
In a press call, a coalition of civil rights and activists groups called #StopToxicTwitter called for a global pause on advertising in the light of the mass layoffs on Friday. Some large companies, like General Mills, Pfizer and GM have said they’re pausing advertisements on the platform.
“With today’s mass layoffs, it’s clear that Musk’s actions betray his words,” Jessica González, co-CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press, said on the call. She was part of a group of seven civil rights and policy groups who talked to Musk earlier this week where he assured them he would not re-platform banned accounts for several weeks and he would restore access to tools for Twitter elections integrity staff that were previously frozen.
Musk himself tweeted that the platform had already seen a “massive drop” in ad revenue, and pugnaciously pushed back on the civic groups putting pressure on Twitter, saying they were “trying to destroy free speech in America.”
Later on Friday, Musk acknowledged the massive layoffs, tweeting that “there is no choice when the company is losing over $4M/day,” adding that “everyone exited was offered 3 months of severance, which is 50% more than legally required.”
One of the individuals laid off was Michele Austin, the company’s now former director of public policy and elections in the U.S. and Canada.
Austin tweeted that she was in charge of helping lead the 2022 U.S. midterms policy on the platform. “I was responsible for social impact work in both countries,” she tweeted in a thread on Friday.
On Friday evening, Yoel Roth, the Head of Safety & Integrity at the company, tweetedthat cuts in his group were much lighter — only 15% — compared to the 50% headcount reduction across the wider organization. “Our core moderation capabilities remain in place,” Roth said, adding that “our efforts on election integrity — including harmful misinformation that can suppress the vote and combatting state-backed information operations — remain a top priority.”
Many former employees were barred from accessing company logins for online Twitter accounts Thursday night without having been previously informed that their contracts had been terminated, according to one former employee who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity. Others posted failed efforts to log into their Twitter email addresses even before the official layoffs had been announced.
“I woke up this morning to find I had no access to my work computer, work email and Slack account,” the person said. “My manager texted me to ask if I still had access, so at that point not even managers knew who was still on their teams.”
To replace some of the reported 4,000 people who have so far lost their jobs, Twitter’s new boss had “brought in some engineers from Tesla and some investors and friends of his,” the person added, adding that the new leadership had justified the firings in the interests of “cost cutting.”
Disgruntled staff in the United States have launched a class-action lawsuit against Twitter, claiming they were not given sufficient notice of their termination. States like California and New York have laws that require companies to give employees lengthy notice before they are fired.
In Europe, similar strict labor laws in countries like Belgium, the United Kingdom and France may make it difficult — and costly — for Musk to jettison local employees.
“Getting rid of public policy people when you’re claiming to do ‘real free speech’ is the [stupidest] move ever,” Audrey Herblin-Stoop, Twitter’s former chief lobbyist in France, wrote on the platform.
The announcements follow an internal email that circulated Thursday that informed the company’s thousands of employees worldwide that they would be told via email on Nov. 4 whether or not they would remain at the company. There had been speculation that up to half of Twitter’s global workforce may lose their jobs, according to Bloomberg.
In the run up to Friday’s purge, Musk’s new leadership had given employees “zero communication” about whose jobs would be at risk, according to another Twitter employee who found themselves out of a job on Friday morning. That individual also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the days after announcing his $44 billion takeover, Musk pressed teams to “find ways to reduce company costs with as much as $3 million per day, or to urgently deliver new features” including Twitter’s new paid-for verified tick, according to the ex-Twitter executive.
“Other than these urgent requests, we did not receive any other communications regarding the company strategy or layoffs,” the person said.
In Dublin, Twitter’s European headquarters, employees speaking with the Irish Times have described the situation as “carnage” where layoffs are “random and indiscriminate.” A now-former Twitter executive based in the United Kingdom told POLITICO that people were sharing frantic WhatsApp messages with colleagues, trying to garner the latest information about who had been fired — and who was still at the company.
“There’s a lot of doom-scrolling on Twitter to see what’s going on,” the individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told POLITICO.
Joan Deitchman, who was a senior engineer in Twitter’s machine learning, ethics, transparency and accountability team, wrote on the platform that the unit — whose job included research on how to improve transparency around automated algorithms — had been completely disbanded.
“All that is gone,” she said.
Other tech companies had already begun trying to hire former Twitter employees. “If you work at Twitter and you find yourself without your job today, please reach out,” Juna González, an Amazon engineer, wrote on Twitter. “I’m sure we have the right role for you somewhere.”
The mass firing represents the next stage in Musk’s takeover of the social network that remains a mainstay in how political leaders from President Joe Biden to French President Emmanuel Macron to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei communicate with a global audience.
In the hours after acquiring Twitter in late October, Musk fired the company’s board, including its chief executive Parag Agrawal, as well as Vijaya Gadde, who ran the social media company’s legal, policy and trust teams.
In a bid to increase revenue at the social media network that has historically struggled to turn a profit, Musk also wants to charge people $8 a month so that their accounts can be verified via the company’s now-iconic “blue tick” logo. The mass layoffs announced Friday are also part of these efforts to make the company more profitable.
The world’s richest man has become a lightning rod in the battle over free speech and content moderation. He’s tried to reassure advertisers that he wouldn’t let the platform devolve into a “free-for-all hellscape.” But some major advertisers have called for a pause in business with the platform, particularly after Musk shared a false story about an attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband.
“He specifically said to us that he does not want Twitter to be a hate amplifier,” said Yael Eisenstat, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Technology and Society, who participated in a call with Musk alongside other civil society groups this week. “We will continue to watch to make sure that those actions actually happen.”
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