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Twitter dissolves Trust and Safety Council

Meanwhile, a former top Twitter official fled his home amid attacks following Musk tweets

Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, a volunteer group dedicated to improving safety on the platform, was dissolved on Dec. 12. (Video: Reuters)

Twitter on Monday night abruptly dissolved its Trust and Safety Council, the latest sign that Elon Musk is unraveling years of work and institutions created to make the social network safer and more civil.

Members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council received an email with the subject line, “Thank You,” that informed them the council was no longer “the best structure” to bring “external insights into our product and policy development work.”

The email dissolution arrived less than an hour before members of the council were expecting to meet with Twitter executives via Zoom to discuss recent developments, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans.

Dozens of civil rights leaders, academics and advocates from around the world had volunteered their time for years to help improve safety on the platform.

“We are grateful for your engagement, advice and collaboration in recent years and wish you every success in the future,” said the email, which was simply signed “Twitter.”

In less than two months, Musk has undone years of investments in trust and safety at Twitter — dismissing key parts of the workforce and bringing back accounts that previously had been suspended. As the body unravels, Musk is tightening his grip on decisions about the future of content moderation at Twitter, with less input from outside experts.

The move is just throwing away “years of institutional memory that we on the council have brought” to the company, said one council member who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about harassment on the platform. “Getting external experts and advocates looking at your services makes you smarter.”

The Trust and Safety Council unraveled after Musk himself had pitched the creation of a content moderation council that would have weighed in on key content moderation decisions, but later appeared to change his mind about introducing such a body.

Many members were already on the verge of resigning, said Larry Magid, chief executive of ConnectSafely, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that advises consumers about children’s internet use.

“By disbanding it, we got fired instead of quit,” he said. “Elon doesn’t want criticism, and he really doesn’t want the kind of advice he would very likely get from a safety advisory council, which would likely tell him to rehire some of the staff he got rid of, and reinstate some of the rules he got rid of, and turn the company in another direction from where he is turning it.”

Twitter first formed the Trust and Safety Council in 2016, as social networks were coming under greater scrutiny for their role in amplifying hate, terrorism, child exploitation and other problematic content online. The council convened a wide range of civil society groups, think tanks — and even some of Silicon Valley’s biggest critics. Twitter executives would regularly brief the council on new products in development and policies.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit that promotes press freedom around the world, decried the dissolution of the council. “Safety online can mean survival offline," the group’s president, Jodie Ginsberg, said in a statement. “Today’s decision to dissolve the Trust and Safety Council is cause for grave concern, particularly as it is coupled with increasingly hostile statements by Twitter owner Elon Musk about journalists and the media.”

“I don’t understand the logic of doing this when many of these relationships were hard fought to develop,” said another member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the council’s dissolution.

Since taking over Twitter, CEO Elon Musk has laid off thousands, many tasked with maintaining crucial services. Former staff worry the site may collapse. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Twitter told Trust and Safety members that their “regional points of contact will remain the best people to contact to escalate concerns.” However, Twitter’s Trust and Safety and policy teams have been gutted by recent layoffs, as well as employee departures following an ultimatum from Musk.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which was a member of the council, will be “keeping a lookout for how they restructure,” said Gavin Portnoy, the center’s vice president.

“For the moment, we’ll continue to encourage reporting to the CyberTipline and hope to continue to have a seat at the table to address child safety on Twitter,” he said.

Last week, three members of the Trust and Safety Council resigned, warning that the “safety and wellbeing of Twitter’s users are on the decline.”

Musk responded to replies to their tweet announcing their resignation, writing, “It’s a crime that they refused to take action on child exploitation for years!”

Jack Dorsey, the company’s former CEO, responded to Musk, calling the claim “false.” But Musk’s comment nonetheless prompted a wave of threats and harassment at the board members who left the council, as well as some who remained.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that was a member of the council and has received funding from tech companies, said in a statement that it was “dismayed by Twitter leadership’s irresponsible actions to spread misinformation about the Council, which have endangered Council members and eroded any semblance of trust in the company.”

Musk’s treatment of the board mirrored a wave of attacks that enveloped a former top executive at the company over the weekend.

Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, and his family were forced from their home after Elon Musk’s tweets misrepresented Roth’s academic writing about sexual activity and children. The online mob also sent threats to people Roth had replied to on Twitter, forcing some of Roth’s family and friends to delete their Twitter accounts, according to a person familiar with Roth’s situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about Roth’s safety.

Musk’s followers also directed harassment at professors who reviewed the dissertation that Roth wrote in 2016, as well as at his graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania, the person said. The university did not respond to a request for comment.

As head of trust and safety at Twitter, Roth was involved in many of the platform’s decisions about what posts to remove and what accounts to suspend. His communications with other Twitter officials have been posted in recent days as part of what Musk calls the Twitter Files, a series of tweets by journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss.

Musk’s tweets to his tens of millions of followers have for years prompted his supporters to deluge the targets of his ire with online threats — famously, a participant in the rescue of a boys soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand, whom Musk branded “pedo guy.” But now that Musk owns one of the most powerful social networks in the world and has gutted the company division that previously policed online harassment, the stakes are even higher.

Musk tweets about Roth recalled the QAnon conspiracy movement, which claims incorrectly that Democratic Party leaders direct a child sex abuse network.

“Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services in his PhD thesis,” Musk tweeted Saturday, attaching a screenshot of Roth’s dissertation.

In the text, Roth suggested that services like the gay dating app Grindr should adopt safety strategies to accommodate teenagers using their platforms, rather than drive them out entirely. Musk also commented on a 2010 tweet in which Roth wrote, “Can high school students ever meaningfully consent to sex with their teachers?” Roth then linked to an article about a Washington State Supreme Court ruling about what age students can consent to having sex with their teachers.

Musk’s critical comments about Roth are something of an about-face from his early days at the company, when Roth appeared to be one of the few high-level Twitter executives Musk supported. On Oct. 30, the billionaire tweeted, “I want to be clear that I support Yoel. My sense is that he has high integrity, and we are all entitled to our political beliefs.”

And Roth appeared measured in his comments on Twitter’s new owner, seeking to reassure the public about company efforts to fight hate and protect elections. He even appeared alongside Musk in a call intended to reassure advertisers.

Even after he left Twitter in November, Roth was muted in his criticism. He warned in an op-ed in the New York Times that there was “little need” for a trust and safety function at a company where “policies are defined by edict.” But he also said publicly that it wasn’t accurate to depict Musk as the “villain of the story” in his takeover of the company.

“I think one of the things that is tricky about Elon, in particular, is that people really want him to be the villain of the story, and they want him to be unequivocally wrong and bad, and everything he says is duplicitous,” Roth said during an interview at the Knight Foundation conference. “I have to say ... that wasn’t my experience with him.”

Still, Roth is the most visible former Twitter executive assessing Musk’s actions, and his role at the company has been highlighted in the Twitter Files.

Twitter employees have long been wary of Musk’s ability to stoke online criticism. Shortly after he announced his plans to take over the company in April, he tweeted a meme to his tens of millions of 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.”

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.”

Such harassment is part of a years-long pattern for Musk, with few legal consequences to date. Musk ultimately was not held liable in a defamation suit brought after he made his “pedo guy” remarks.

Joseph Menn and Naomi Nix in San Francisco contributed to this report.