The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter layoffs gutted election information teams days before midterms

With half of the company gone, political campaigns are gripped with anxiety over how to address election misinformation and potential threats

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Friday. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Devastating cuts to Twitter’s workforce on Friday, four days before the midterm elections, are fueling anxieties among political campaigns and election offices that have counted on the social network’s staff to help them combat violent threats and viral lies.

The mass layoffs Friday gutted teams devoted to combating election misinformation, adding context to misleading tweets and communicating with journalists, public officials and campaign staff.

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

Twitter had become one of America’s most influential platforms for spreading accurate voting information, and the days before elections have often been critical moments where company and campaign officials kept up a near-constant dialogue about potential risks.

But a representative from one of the national party committees said they are seeing hours-long delays in responses from their contacts at Twitter, raising fears of the toll workplace chaos and sudden terminations is taking on the platform’s ability to quickly react to developments. The representative spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

After months of legal disputes, Elon Musk closed his deal to buy Twitter and exerted control of the social media company, firing key executives on Oct. 27. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Some researchers tracking online threats said they also feared that the cuts would interrupt lines of communication between the company and police that have been used to identify people threatening voter intimidation or offline violence.

“Law enforcement may lose precious minutes in identifying that person who we think is posing an actual threat,” said Katherine Keneally, a senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies political extremism and polarization.

Keneally said she’d already seen an uptick in threatening content related to the election. She pointed to one post where a user wrote of the need to “pour in bleach or gasoline” at ballot drop boxes, a target of right-wing conspiracy theories about systematic voter fraud.

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

“Elon Musk goes out and buys an outfit that spews lies all across the world,” he said while attending a political fundraiser in Chicago. “There’s no editors anymore in America.”

Twitter communications officials 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 top executives to survive Musk’s takeover, tweeted on Friday evening that the company’s “core moderation capabilities remain in place.” He said that the cuts to Twitter’s Trust & Safety division were about 15 percent, in contrast to the nearly 50 percent in cuts across the company.

“With early voting underway in the US, our efforts on election integrity — including harmful misinformation that can suppress the vote and combatting state-backed information operations — remain a top priority,” he tweeted.

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

Musk, the world’s richest person who spent $44 billion for the site, has said the massive cuts of the company’s 7,500-person staff will help prepare it for future success, and he has instructed workers to roll out services he says will safeguard the platform as a digital town square.

Some of his more aggressive changes, however, are also sparking unease. Under Musk, the company is pushing ahead on a service — scheduled to be unveiled Monday, a day before the election — that would give any paying user the “verified” check-mark icon now offered only to politicians, journalists and other notable figures who have confirmed their identity. That move, some political officials said, could fuel deep confusion in the final hours of the race.

“Impersonation of election [officials] is a serious concern for us as the platform considers modifications to their verifications,” said Amy Cohen, the executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors. “We hope that Twitter leadership deploys any changes in advance of the election carefully and recognizing the critical role the platform plays in the election information ecosystem.”

Among the cuts to Twitter was its curation team, a key part of the company’s efforts to guide users to reliable news sources and tamp down on viral hoaxes and conspiracy theories. The team has worked for years to counter election-related falsehoods, such as claims that vote-by-mail ballots would be discarded, and provide credible information in cases where losing candidates have falsely claimed victory.

In October 2020, ahead of the U.S. presidential election, the team added context to all trends that could be found in Twitter’s prime real estate — its “For you” and “What’s happening” boxes — on its app and website. As recently as two weeks ago, Twitter was touting the team’s debunking efforts as a key aspect of its approach to the 2022 midterms.

But on Friday, multiple Twitter employees told The Washington Post the entire team appeared to have been cut amid Musk’s layoffs. Edward Perez, a former Twitter product director and an expert on election integrity, said, “For Musk to back away from Twitter’s positive efforts to pre-bunk or debunk false claims, just days before a major election, is simply terrible timing.”

Twitter to charge $8 a month for verification. What you need to know.

The cuts also have shaken members of civil rights and advocacy groups who met with Musk earlier this week to share their concerns about his takeover. Musk had “promised to retain and enforce the election integrity measures that were on Twitter’s books before his takeover,” Jessica González, a co-leader of the group Free Press, said Friday. “With today’s mass layoffs, it’s clear that Musk’s actions betray his words. … Even before Musk took over, this operation was dangerously under-resourced.”

Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil rights group Color of Change, took issue with Musk’s proposal to change Twitter’s “verified” system right before midterms, saying it “could have [an] unprecedented impact on election chaos.”

“Any right-wing troll can pay $8 on Monday, get a blue check mark and then change their username to ‘CNN’ or ‘Georgia secretary of state’ and appear as verified and call races,” he said.

Musk meeting with civil rights groups upsets his fans

Even before the layoffs, experts had warned that Twitter did not have enough people on staff to handle content moderation. An audit that company whistleblower Peiter Zatko commissioned from the company Alethea Group found that Twitter’s integrity teams were “persistently understaffed” and “have had to make significant trade-offs.”

During U.S. elections, Twitter has set up an election squad that includes people from outside of the core content moderation units to help identify threats; the company’s ability to staff that unit will probably be impacted by the cuts.

Researchers studying election misinformation said there also is uncertainty about what the layoffs at Twitter would mean as voters across the country head to the polls.

Twitter can’t afford to be one of the world’s most influential websites

Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said during a virtual conference on Friday that Twitter has been “massively disrupted” and that she is “waiting to see how dynamics change without even knowing what changes have happened underneath the hood.”

“Some of the ways that platform worked yesterday are not going to be the way they work today, tomorrow and going into the election on Tuesday,” she said.

Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said she had 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 immediately back on the platform, which, she predicted, would avert the “avalanche of misinformation many people are anticipating.”

On alternative platforms, meanwhile, there was glee over the possibility of less content moderation on Twitter. A user with more than 72,000 followers on the chat app Telegram celebrated that the anticipated changes were taking place “RIGHT BEFORE THE US ELECTION” so that “whatever goes down on Tuesday … a lot more people will be talking about it on Twitter.”

To Donovan, that expectation could actually blunt the impact of misinformation. “Because the chaotic changes at Twitter have been playing out in public view, many people are already going to be skeptical of the information they’re getting from the platform,” she said. “It’s not considered a very reliable source in this moment.”

Some employees in roles related to the midterms announced on Twitter that they had been terminated. Michele Austin, the director of U.S. and Canada public policy at the company, wrote that she helped lead the 2022 midterms on the platform and was “in denial” that her time at the company was over.

Kevin Sullivan, a civic integrity specialist who said on LinkedIn that he led editorial planning for the 2022 midterms and election misinformation, also announced his departure.

“He couldn’t have waited till Wednesday? #Election2022,” he tweeted.

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

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