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Elon Musk boosts criticism of Twitter executives, prompting online attacks

The targeting of employees by Musk’s massive Twitter megaphone is a major concern for workers.

Elon Musk in 2019. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)
9 min

Two days after striking a deal to purchase Twitter, Elon Musk used his powerful Twitter account to elevate conservative criticism of two executives at the social media company, roiling a workforce already uneasy about how he will balance his abrasive social media style and embrace of free speech with his stewardship of the company.

On Wednesday, he tweeted a meme to his more than 86 million followers with the face of Twitter’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, that appeared to suggest the company’s decisions are affected by a “left wing bias.” The tweet came hours after he criticized a 2020 policy decision Gadde made, and was in response to an earlier tweet from a political podcast host calling her the company’s “top censorship advocate.”

Twitter users quickly piled on — calling on Musk to fire Gadde or using racist language to describe her. Gadde was born in India and immigrated to the United States as a child. One user said she would “go down in history as an appalling person.”

Twitter accepted a $44 billion takeover offer from Elon Musk on April 25. Why did he want to buy the social media giant? (Video: Hadley Green, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

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Musk’s tweets have singular power to unleash mobs against people with much lower profiles — in 280 characters or less. As Musk stakes his $44 billion takeover of one of the world’s most influential social platforms on the promise of restoring free speech there, his rhetoric is at odds with the way his supporters have weaponized Twitter — prompting people to lock down their personal profiles and public information.

“Musk has actually used Twitter as his slingshot when going after critics,” said April Glaser, a senior research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “It’s not surprising he would then want to have greater control of that slingshot.”

Musk’s power to unleash his followers in these ways has alarmed some Twitter workers, who expressed concerns at a company town hall on Monday and in interviews about the possibility of being mentioned in tweets by their future boss. It is unusual for an incoming owner to make any public comment about his future employees, much less publicly criticize their performance or past decisions.

The terms of his deal to acquire Twitter allow the SpaceX and Tesla CEO to tweet about his acquisition “so long as such tweets do not disparage the Company or any of its Representatives.”

A person familiar with the dealmaking process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential matters, said that the so-called disparagement clause is only applicable when Musk is tweeting or commenting about the deal itself, and therefore negative comments about Twitter outside of that do not violate the terms.

Twitter declined to comment for this article. Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal sent a tweet Wednesday afternoon with a note of reassurance.

“Proud of our people who continue to do the work with focus and urgency despite the noise,” he wrote.

Gadde and Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

Musk views Twitter as the “de facto town square,” a place where rules should be kept to a minimum. Twitter’s employees, however have spent years developing sophisticated protocols to police its platform for hate speech and other rule-breaking content, including recently investing in tools to limit online harassment. Now the company is being acquired by the world’s richest person, whose views are fundamentally at odds with those of much of the workforce.

In a 2018 interview with “60 Minutes,” Musk said, “Twitter is a war zone. If somebody’s going jump in a war zone, it’s like ‘okay, you’re in the arena, let’s go.’”

More recently, after launching his hostile takeover bid, Musk acknowledged that content moderation is not clear-cut.

“Well, I think we would want to err on the, if in doubt, let the speech, let it exist. But if it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” he said at a TED conference. “But obviously in a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you’re not necessarily going to promote that tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here.”

Social media experts say a simplistic view of “free speech,” which essentially means few or no rules and restrictions, ignores that such a freewheeling environment could result in violent or harassing attacks that can actually shut down people from participating in the online conversation.

“When that energy is bearing down on you, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying for you and your friends and family,” said Whitney Phillips, a professor of communications at Syracuse University. “The fact that it is so silencing and creates a chilling effect for others who are worried about speaking out. If you want to talk about dangers and challenges to free speech, that’s central.”

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Musk’s response to the tweet about Gadde — his first criticizing the decision of a specific Twitter executive since buying the company — underscored how his followers can quickly be activated by a single tweet.

Musk didn’t specifically name or tag Gadde. But he responded to a tweet by political podcast host Saagar Enjeti in which she was named, drawing more than 400,000 likes, retweets and replies on Musk’s post.

“Vijaya Gadde, the top censorship advocate at Twitter who famously gaslit the world on Joe Rogan’s podcast and censored the Hunter Biden laptop story, is very upset about the @elonmusk takeover,” Enjeti tweeted, linking to a Politico story on the topic.

During the 2020 presidential election, Twitter temporarily blocked a New York Post story on Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter that it said violated a policy against posting hacked materials. The company did not suspend the entire news organization but did prevent it from tweeting for a period of time.

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before Congress in 2020 that the company made a mistake and assumed the article violated its hacked materials policy, which it subsequently changed.

On Tuesday, Musk tweeted, “Suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate.”

Twitter employees publicly defended Gadde from the attacks on Wednesday morning. “@vijaya, fist bump of empathy,” tweeted Lea Kissner, the company’s head of privacy engineering.

Enjeti defended his tweet on Gadde because she is a “public figure” who appeared on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast and denied that he’s responsible for the way people are treating her online.

Musk’s response Tuesday to the tweet from Enjeti raises questions about how he will manage a workforce that is already suspicious of the billionaire and his intentions.

Also troubling to some workers, Musk on Tuesday replied to another tweet that called attention to Twitter’s deputy general counsel Jim Baker, who previously held a high-ranking position at the FBI.

Online influencer Mike Cernovich tweeted at Musk about Baker’s role in a case that has drawn fire from conservatives, saying, “@elonmusk, this is who is inside Twitter.” Musk replied, “Sounds pretty bad.”

Baker declined to comment about the exchange. In a message, Cernovich said, “I’m surprised by the reaction to my tweet, which was a discussion of a news report.”

Musk launched a hostile takeover bid for Twitter two weeks ago. On Monday, the two parties announced they’d reached an agreement for an acquisition that is expected to close in three to six months, according to executives.

Why did Elon Musk buy Twitter?

Musk has used the platform to criticize Twitter’s decisions in the past, particularly on topics related to free speech and the banning of accounts of individuals who violate Twitter rules. Gadde is the most senior executive responsible for those decisions.

The vitriol hitting the Twitter employees is part of a years-long pattern of online harassment that has previously ensnared government officials, company whistleblowers, technologists, journalists and — at one point — a Thai cave rescue volunteer Musk called a “pedo guy,” leading to a defamation suit. (Musk ultimately was not liable in the suit.)

Last October, Musk took aim at Duke University professor Missy Cummings when she was appointed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as an adviser. Musk’s tweet alleging she was “extremely biased” unleashed a swarm of personal attacks and misogynistic harassment. Cummings deactivated her Twitter account soon after.

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“I am increasingly concerned about my personal safety around people who clearly are not capable of rational and reasoned thinking,” she wrote in a post on LinkedIn two months ago.

Also last year, Musk tweeted a link to the Wikipedia page of National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, a critic of Tesla’s failure to adopt certain safety measures. But the repeated attempts to alter Homendy’s page appeared to prompt Wikipedia to lock it.

Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion

Others say they have been targeted for voicing skepticism about Musk. Earlier this year, Brianna Wu, the executive director of Rebellion Pac and a software engineer, critiqued Musk’s plans to send Starlink devices to Ukraine, tweeting that the devices didn’t work based on coverage she read in tech publications. (A Ukraine official told The Washington Post in March that the Starlink antennas proved “very effective.”)

Wu, who was previously targeted with threats during a broad online-harassment campaign targeting female game developers known as GamerGate, said her Twitter account “turned into a sea of personal attacks.” Rather than disagreeing with the posts, Wu said that Musk’s online supporters focus on reputational attacks.

“Elon Musk fans are honestly some of the worst harassers I’ve ever encountered on the Internet,” Wu said in an interview. “So the argument isn’t that you’re wrong about this and this is why. It’s that you’re a fraud and a terrible person, and you have no right to exist.”