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Elon Musk tells Twitter staff harassment will drive people from service

In his first exchange with the company’s 7,500 workers, he also indicated that he would fire people who aren’t top performers

Elon Musk’s $44 billion deal to acquire Twitter has prompted intense internal outcry. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

In his first address to Twitter’s staff, Elon Musk said Thursday that too much harassment on the site would threaten the platform’s future but that content decisions also should be governed by whether posts are entertaining.

In the virtual town hall, Musk said that people needed to “like” being on Twitter, and if they were “harassed or uncomfortable,” the product would lose so many users that it would turn into a niche service.

His comment appeared to be an attempt to address concerns that Musk, a self-described free-speech absolutist whose own followers are known to harass people, would turn Twitter into a free-for-all of misinformation and hate.

During a June 16 conference call obtained by The Washington Post, Elon Musk said too much harassment on the site could threaten the platform’s future. (Video: The Washington Post/Elizabeth Dwoskin)

Far from assuaging the company’s 7,500 mostly remote employees, the meeting with Musk seemed to rile them anew, said two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal reaction. Twitter’s internal Slack channels lit up with anger and disappointment at Musk’s answers to employees’ questions, including a suggestion that he planned to lay off underperformers.

The town hall took place after months of internal outcry from Twitter employees, who have repeatedly expressed concerns about the $44 billion deal to acquire the company. Musk has called out individual Twitter executives on his own feed on the platform, criticized product and content moderation decisions, and charged the company with not being forthright about the amount of spam and bots on the service.

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Employees had submitted questions Wednesday night, and they were posed to Musk by Twitter chief marketing officer Leslie Berland. Musk beamed in by videoconference from a nicely furnished room. The Washington Post was able to monitor the live stream’s audio.

The questions included whether he would lay people off, whether his political views would inform his leadership of the company, and what he would do to regain trust. He was also asked to share his views on policing content that is harmful but not illegal, such as misinformation. But if anyone asked Musk whether he would reinstate the account of former president Donald Trump or other banned individuals, Berland did not choose to pose it Thursday. Musk said last month that he would.

On layoffs, Musk said he believed in running companies as a “meritocracy,” saying: “If someone is getting stuff done, great, I love them. If they’re not, why are they at the company?”

When asked how Twitter staff and Elon Musk could earn each other's trust, the billionaire Tesla CEO said, "Trust is as trust does." (Video: The Washington Post/Elizabeth Dwoskin)

He also reiterated his concerns about spam and bots, and described himself as a political moderate who had mostly voted for Democrats. At another point, he indicated that he believed in the advertising business model, which he had derided in the past.

On harmful content, Musk said that people should be able to express “extreme” views so long as what they say doesn’t violate the law — a point he has made publicly before. But he also appeared to sidestep questions about how such content should be moderated, saying that “The standard is more than not offending people. The standard should be that they should be entertained.”

Musk also used the town hall to field questions about why he was buying Twitter and his goals for the company. He said he was buying Twitter because he loves the service, and that he used Twitter to avoid what he called the “negative lens” of the mainstream media by addressing followers directly. He spoke about his goals for the company in highly abstract terms, saying that he waned to ensure that Twitter has “meaningfully improved the strength and longevity of civilization.” At one point he mused about aliens.

During a June 16 town hall with Twitter employees, Elon Musk said Twitter users should not be offended but "very entertained." (Video: The Washington Post/Elizabeth Dwoskin)

Musk’s potential acquisition of Twitter has plunged the social network into crisis. The company’s stock has fallen more than 25 percent since he agreed to buy it at $54.20 per share. Musk has been capricious in his approach to the deal, critiquing the platform from his popular Twitter account. In one tweet, he proclaimed the deal was “on hold,” and he has frequently criticized the company’s content and product-related decisions. He has repeatedly said Twitter is failing to divulge enough information about the amount of spam and bot accounts on its service.

With each new fight, Twitter’s stock price has fallen, causing Wall Street to speculate that Musk may not go through with the deal — and further battering internal morale. This week, company employees learned that an annual companywide retreat, planned for Disneyland, would be scrapped amid cost-cutting measures.

Even before the town hall, managers have been asked to push low performers to leave, one manager said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans. And the company’s internal message boards on Slack have hosted an uncomfortable mixture of frustration, anger and silence as employees weigh their urge to speak out against a growing concern of retaliation for doing so at a company that previously encouraged open dialogue.

After protracted negotiations, Twitter now plans to share reams of real-time internal data, known as the “firehose,” with Musk. His team has indicated to associates that the data could provide key clues to help him understand the bot issue. But Twitter employees say that the firehose does not contain information that will change the company’s current bot estimates and that Musk’s bot argument is a tactic to lower the purchase price.

The company held previous town halls, where workers could question executives and board members, throughout the contentious negotiation with the billionaire.

Executives have deflected some of these questions in the past, saying that only Musk would have the answers.

Also on Thursday, SpaceX employees posted an open letter to the company’s internal communication system saying that Musk’s behavior on Twitter was a “distraction and embarassment” to employees, according to a copy shared with The Post.

Will Oremus contributed to this report.

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