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Advertisers fleeing, workers in fear: Welcome to Elon Musk’s Twitter

The company was in turmoil one week into Musk’s ownership as an estimated half of its workers were handed pink slips and civil rights groups called for a boycott

Twitter headquarters. (Amy Osborne/For The Washington Post)
10 min

SAN FRANCISCO — One week after Elon Musk acquired Twitter, the company was in turmoil on Friday, as half of its workers were handed pink slips and advertisers were fleeing amid calls from civil rights groups to boycott a social media site accused of fueling hate speech and conspiracy theories.

As racist and antisemitic trolls continued to test the boundaries of Musk’s Twitter online, concern was growing that the mass layoffs could hobble the site’s ability to police misinformation ahead of next week’s midterm elections — as well as around other elections abroad.

Meanwhile, some workers who kept their jobs mourned the Twitter they knew as they questioned Musk’s direction. Projects that used to have seven-day timelines now get 24 hours, said one worker still retained in the new Twitter, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Days of rest have been eliminated from workers’ calendars. And a skeleton staff of remaining employees is rushing to meet deadlines on new features Musk has promised users.

Musk acknowledged the chaos on Friday, tweeting that Twitter had experienced a massive drop in revenue because of activist pressure on advertisers. He repeated his claim that the site had made no changes in how it polices rule-breaking content.

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“Nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists,” he tweeted. “Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”

Musk was referring in part to a coalition of civil rights and activists groups who met with Musk earlier in the week — including the NAACP — who on Friday called on brands to suspend advertising on Twitter following the layoffs.

Mass layoffs at Twitter, anticipated since Elon Musk acquired the social media company, began on Nov. 4. (Video: Reuters)

Already, General Motors, Volkswagen Group and General Mills have said they are pausing advertising.

“It is immoral, dangerous, and highly destructive to our democracy for any advertiser to fund a platform that fuels hate speech, election denialism, and conspiracy theories,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who said he met with Musk on Tuesday, in a statement.

Current and newly former employees say Musk has instilled a culture of fear in his new company in just a week, as he quickly established he will be a stiff and efficiency-focused leader. His new aim is clear: to unlock Twitter’s moneymaking potential once and for all. Musk has announced he wants to charge for blue check marks and employees are working on a new plan for paywalled videos.

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Musk is under extreme financial pressure stemming from the acquisition of a site he has admitted to overpaying for. Analysts have placed its value closer to $25 billion, well below the $44 billion price tag footed by Musk and his investors. He is expected to owe $1 billion in annual interest payments alone, after taking out a large loan to help pay for it.

Roughly 50 percent of the company’s workers were laid off overnight, according to two people with knowledge of the extent of the cuts, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe sensitive matters.

Even so, many managers were in the dark about the extent to which their teams had been eliminated. They only found out direct reports had been kept when they appeared in Slack.

“We don’t know who’s in charge,” said the worker who had been retained. “We have no idea what’s going on.”

Twitter and Musk did not respond to requests for comment about the layoffs.

Musk said on Twitter on Friday that Twitter had no choice but to conduct the layoffs because it was losing $4 million per day.

“Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged,” he said in separate tweet.

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The layoffs struck across the workforce, impacting teams including sales, engineering and product, and trust and safety and legal. Some teams appeared to be hit worse than others.

Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, said in a Twitter thread that the Trust and Safety Team — which handles issues such as content moderation — lost about 15 percent of its workforce. But, he added, Twitter’s front-line moderators were least impacted, and policing misinformation remained a top priority as the midterm elections approached.

Among the teams that have been either mostly or entirely cut, the people said, was Twitter’s curation team, a key part of the company’s efforts to guide users to reliable news sources and tamp down on viral lies, hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

Andrew Haigh, Twitter’s senior curation lead for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, posted on Twitter on Friday that “Twitter’s curation team is no more.”

The claim was confirmed by another employee familiar with the team’s work, who spoke to The Post on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. That employee estimated the team had 100 people before the cuts.

One surviving employee estimated that half of the company’s security team of hundreds had been laid off, exacerbating fears that Twitter’s infrastructure and its users’ privacy could be put in further jeopardy.

Twitter’s human rights counsel, Shannon Raj Singh, tweeted that her entire team had been eliminated. She wrote that they had worked to protect people in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, including human rights advocates and journalists left more exposed through their presence on social media.

Twitter’s communications staff, which handles the company’s public relations and media — in addition to messaging to staff — was gutted to consist of just two people, according to a person with knowledge of the cuts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Only one employee remained from Twitter’s 14-person ethical AI team, called ML Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability or META, according to a former employee.

Meanwhile, employees in the ad sales department initially appeared to have experienced fewer cuts, according to one employee who spoke on the same condition and based their assessment on conversations with other workers. Twitter makes most of its money through selling advertising space.

“It would have made no sense to fire revenue-generating employees,” the person said.

Documents detail plans to gut Twitter’s workforce

Speaking Friday at the annual Baron Investment Conference in New York, Musk laid out plans to improve Twitter’s service, including setting different user experiences — using the analogy of an “easy listening smooth jazz” vibe to “heavy metal thrash.”

“You should be able to pick your preference and decide if you want sort of full contact battle or do you want, like, ‘no I just want to look at puppies and flowers and nice landscapes and stuff,’” he said.

Musk also addressed growing concerns about content moderation.

“We’re also going to obviously make Twitter just a way better system,” he said. “I mean it stands to reason that if a social media company is not taking steps to make it positive to be on that social platform then people won’t come or they’ll leave.”

Musk, who has expressed a desire for free speech on the platform, said hate speech such as racism and antisemitism would drive people away, aside from being inherently wrong, and that Twitter should be taking steps to make itself a positive place to spend time.

Elon Musk begins mass layoffs at Twitter

The fallout from the layoffs was swift. A coalition of more than 60 civil rights groups urged top advertisers to suspend their marketing spending on Twitter in protest of Musk’s decision to let go of scores of employees, arguing the company will be less equipped to police its platform.

“When we met with Elon Musk, he made commitments that gave us cautious optimism, but until actions are taken to make Twitter a safe space, corporations cannot in good conscience put their money behind Twitter,” Johnson, the NAACP president, said in a statement. “Twitter must earn its advertisers by creating a platform that safeguards our democracy and rids itself of any content or account that spews hate and disinformation.”

General Motors spokeswoman Maria Raynal said in a statement that the company is engaging with Twitter to better understand its new direction.

“As is normal course of business with a significant change in a media platform, we have temporarily paused our paid advertising,” she added. “It’s important for us to ensure our advertising strategies and data can be safely managed by a platform owned by a competitor.”

Volkswagen Group said in a statement that it’s closely monitoring the situation.

The call for a boycott from the groups follows a tumultuous start for the relationship between the new owner of Twitter and the civil rights groups, who have long been concerned about Musk’s early promises to ease content moderation practices and reinstate former president Donald Trump. The organizations included social justice groups and anti-big-tech groups such as Color of Change, Free Press and the Anti-Defamation League, among others.

They said Friday during a call with reporters that they were escalating a previous request for advertisers to consider backing out if Musk scales back the company’s content moderation practices.

At a Twitter investors conference in New York on Nov. 4, Elon Musk said pressure on advertisers from unnamed activists was “an attack on the First Amendment.” (Video: Reuters)

The layoffs, which were announced Thursday night, set the tone for how Musk, a notoriously hard-charging boss known for tough work environments, will be expected to run the company. His tenure began last week with the firing of top executives and the turmoil continued Friday with the job cuts. That all came before Musk had found the time to formally introduce himself as the new boss, either via email or a town hall, one of which was canceled earlier this week.

“We acknowledge this is an incredibly challenging experience to go through, whether or not you are impacted,” a Thursday night email said, the first known companywide acknowledgment of the new regime. It was signed, “Twitter.”

Workers had been told they would receive an email by 9 a.m. Pacific time, with the subject line reading: “Your Role at Twitter.” If they were let go, a notification would go to their personal emails. If they were retained, they’d receive a ping in their work inboxes.

One laid off worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that job losses or not, employees simply wanted to learn their fate.

This version of the company “isn’t what we all signed up for,” the person said. The person described the new environment as “cruel, toxic, padding Elon’s debt pockets.”

Elon Musk acquires Twitter and fires top executives

Employees remaining at the company received no communication from management for hours after the layoffs were completed, said one person, who spoke on the condition anonymity to candidly discuss the layoffs at the company.

On Slack, amid emoji and tears, workers sent “Is anyone alive out there” style messages.

Cat Zakrzewski, Gerrit De Vynck, Heather Kelly, Joseph Menn and Nitasha Tiku contributed to this report.