Twitter layoffs spoil electoral information teams days before the midterms


The devastating cuts to Twitter’s workforce on Friday, four days before the midterm elections, sparked anxiety among political campaigns and election offices that have relied on the social network’s staff to help them combat violent threats and pervasive lies.

Friday’s mass layoffs decimated teams dedicated to combating electoral disinformation, adding context to misleading tweets and communicating with journalists, government officials and campaign staff.

A former employee told The Washington Post that the layoffs included a number of people who were scheduled to be on call this weekend and early next week for signs of foreign disinformation, spam and other problematic content about the election. As of Friday morning, employees’ access to internal tools used to moderate content continued to be restricted, limiting employees’ ability to respond to disinformation.

Twitter has become one of the most influential platforms in America for disseminating accurate information on voting, and the days leading up to elections were often defining moments as company and campaign officials pursued a near-constant dialogue about potential risks.

But a representative from a national party committee said they are seeing delays of hours in responses from their Twitter contacts, raising fears of workplace chaos and abrupt terminations affecting the platform’s ability to respond quickly to developments. The actor spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Some researchers who track online threats also said they fear the cuts will cut lines of communication between the company and police that have been used to identify people who threaten voter intimidation or violence offline.

“Law enforcement may lose precious minutes in identifying who we believe is a credible threat,” said Catherine Keneally, senior director of research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies political extremism and polarization.

Keneally said she has already seen a slight increase in threatening election-related content. She referred to a post in which one user wrote about the need to “pour bleach or gasoline” into the ballot box, a target of right-wing conspiracy theories about organized voter fraud.

President Biden on Friday criticized Twitter’s role in spreading false information.

“Elon Musk goes out and buys a costume that is spreading lies all over the world,” he said while attending a political fundraiser in Chicago. “There are no longer liberators in America.”

Communications officials on Twitter did not respond to requests for comment. Many of them were among the layoffs.

Yoel Roth, the company’s head of safety and integrity and one of the few CEOs to escape Musk’s control, tweeted Friday evening that “the company’s core moderation capabilities are still in place.” He said reductions in Twitter’s trust and safety department were about 15 percent, as opposed to nearly 50 percent in cuts across the company.

“With early voting taking place in the United States, our efforts on election integrity — including harmful disinformation that can suppress voting and combating state-backed information operations — remain our top priority,” he tweeted.

Advertisers and Workers Flee in Fear: Welcome to Elon Musk’s Twitter

Musk, the world’s richest person who has spent $44 billion on the site, said the massive cuts to the company’s 7,500 employees will help prepare it for future success, and instructed workers to roll out services he says will protect the platform like a digital city plaza.

However, some of his more aggressive changes are also concerning. Under Musk’s leadership, the company is pressing ahead with a service – due to be unveiled on Monday, a day before the election – that would give any paying user a “verification” checkmark code that is now offered only to politicians, journalists and other high-profile figures who have confirmed their identity. . Some political officials said the move could cause deep confusion in the final hours of the race.

“Impersonate the election [officials] “It is of grave concern to us as the platform considers making adjustments to their verification processes,” said Amy Cohen, executive director of the state’s National Association of Election Managers. “We hope that the Twitter leadership carefully publishes any changes ahead of the election and understands the critical role the platform plays in the election information ecosystem.”

Among Twitter’s cuts has been its curation team, a key part of the company’s efforts to direct users to trusted news sources and curb viral hoaxes and conspiracy theories. The team has worked for years to counter election-related lies, such as claims that e-mail voting will be ignored, and to provide reliable information in cases where losing candidates falsely claim victory.

In October 2020, ahead of the US presidential election, the team added context to all of the trends that can be found in prime real estate on Twitter – the “For You” and “What’s Happening” boxes – on the app and website. Recently, a couple of weeks ago, Twitter was touting the team’s debunking efforts as a major aspect of it. Approaching mid-term 2022.

But on Friday, several Twitter employees told the Washington Post that the entire team appears to have been cut short amid Musk’s layoffs. Edward Perez, a former Twitter product manager and expert on election integrity, said, “Musk’s rollback of Twitter’s positive efforts to counter or expose false allegations, just days before a major election, is very bad timing.”

Twitter charges $8 per month for verification. What you need to know.

The cuts also rattled members of civil rights and advocacy groups who met with Musk earlier this week to share their concerns about his power grab. Jessica Gonzalez, co-leader of the Free Press Group, said Friday that Musk “promised to maintain and enforce the election integrity measures that were in the Twitter books before he took office.” “With today’s mass layoffs, Musk’s actions clearly betray his words. … Even before Musk took over, this process was seriously under-resourced.”

Rashad Robinson, president of civil rights group Color of Change, disputed Musk’s proposal to change Twitter’s “verified” system right before the midterm, saying it “could be [an] Unprecedented impact on election chaos.”

“Any right-wing troll can pay $8 on Monday, get a blue checkmark and then change their username to ‘CNN’ or ‘Georgia Secretary of State’ and appear as verified and recall the races,” he said.

Musk’s encounter with civil rights groups upsets his fans

Even before the layoffs, experts warned that Twitter did not have enough staff to handle content moderation. An audit by whistleblower Peter Zatko of Alethea Group found that Twitter’s integrity teams were “permanently understaffed” and “had to make significant trade-offs.”

During the US elections, Twitter created an election team that included people outside of its core content moderation units to help identify threats; The company’s ability to employ that unit is likely to be affected by the cuts.

Researchers who study electoral disinformation said there is also uncertainty about what the Twitter layoffs could mean as voters across the country head to the polls.

Twitter cannot be one of the most influential websites in the world

Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said during a virtual conference on Friday that Twitter is “hugely disrupted” and that it is “waiting to see how the dynamics change without even knowing what changes have occurred under the hood.”

“Some of the ways that this platform worked yesterday will not be the way they work today and tomorrow and get into the elections on Tuesday,” she said.

Joan Donovan, director of research at Harvard University’s Shornstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, said she has also seen reports of increased coordinated activity, hateful content and harassing messages. But she said she was encouraged by Musk’s decision not to allow banned users to immediately return to the platform, which she expected would avoid “the avalanche of misinformation that many people expect.”

Meanwhile, on alternative platforms, there was delight at the prospect of less moderation of content on Twitter. A user with more than 72,000 followers on the chat app Telegram celebrated that the expected changes were taking place “just before the US elections” so that “whatever happens on Tuesday… a lot of people will be talking about it on Twitter.”

For Donovan, this expectation can mitigate the impact of misinformation. “As the chaotic changes in Twitter have been showing up in public view, many people will already be skeptical about the information they are getting from the platform,” she said. “It is not considered a very reliable source at the moment.”

Some employees in half-term roles have announced on Twitter that they have been terminated. Michelle Austin, the company’s director of US and Canada public policy, wrote that she helped lead the 2022 midterm on the platform and was “in denial” that her time at the company was over.

Kevin Sullivan, a civil integrity specialist who said on LinkedIn that he led editorial planning for the 2022 half-term and election disinformation, also announced his departure.

“He couldn’t have waited until Wednesday? # Election 2022he tweeted.

Matt Brown, Naomi Nix, Will Orims, Brittany Shammas and Yvonne Wingate Sanchez contributed to this report.

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