Twitter layoffs worry election officials and politicians

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Twitter’s devastating staffing cuts on Friday, four days before the midterm elections, fuel concerns among political campaigns and election offices that have relied on the social network’s staff to help them fight violent threats and abuses. viral lies.

Friday’s mass layoffs gutted teams dedicated to countering election misinformation, adding context to misleading tweets and communicating with reporters, officials and campaign staff.

The layoffs included a number of people who were 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, a former veteran said. employee at 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 disseminating accurate voting information, and the days leading up to the election were often critical times when company and campaign officials maintained a near dialogue. constantly on potential risks.

But a representative from one of the party’s national committees said he was seeing delays of several hours in responses from his contacts on Twitter, raising fears that workplace chaos and sudden layoffs could affect the platform’s ability to react quickly to developments. The representative spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Some researchers monitoring online threats also said they fear the shutdowns could disrupt lines of communication between the company and police that have been used to identify people threatening voter intimidation or offline violence. .

“Law enforcement can waste valuable minutes identifying this individual who we believe poses a real threat,” said Katherine Keneally, senior research director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies political extremism and polarization.

Keneally said she has already seen an increase in threatening election-related content. She pointed to a post in which a user wrote about the need to “pour bleach or gasoline” at the ballot box, a target of right-wing conspiracy theories about systematic voter fraud.

Twitter communications officials did not respond to requests for comment. Many of them were part of the layoffs.

Yoel Roth, head of corporate security and integrity and one of the few senior executives to survive Musk’s takeover, tweeted late Friday that the “basic moderation capabilities of the company remain in place”. He said the cuts in Twitter’s Trust & Safety division were around 15%, in contrast to the nearly 50% cuts across the company.

“With early voting underway in the United States, our election integrity efforts — including harmful disinformation that can suppress voting and countering state-sponsored information operations — remain a top priority. “, he tweeted.

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Musk, the world’s richest person who has spent $44 billion on the site, said the company’s massive workforce reductions of 7,500 will help prepare it for future success, and he said asked workers to deploy services that he says will protect the platform as a digital public square.

However, some of his more aggressive changes also elicit unease. Under Musk, the company is advancing a service – due to be unveiled on Monday, a day before the election – that would give any paying user the “verified” checkmark icon now only offered to politicians, journalists and other notables who have confirmed their identity. The move, some politicians said, could fuel deep confusion in the final hours of the race.

“Identity theft [officials] is a serious concern for us as the platform is considering changes to their checks,” said Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors. “We hope Twitter executives carefully roll out any changes ahead of the election and recognize 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 sources of information and quell viral hoaxes and conspiracy theories. The team has worked for years to counter election-related lies, such as claims that mail-in ballots will 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 the trends that could be found in Twitter’s core real estate — its “For You” and “What’s Happening” boxes — on its app and its website. Just two weeks ago, Twitter touted the team’s debunking efforts as a key aspect of its approaching the 2022 mid-terms.

But on Friday, several Twitter employees told The Washington Post that the entire team appeared to have been cut amid Musk’s layoffs. Edward Perez, former Twitter product manager and election integrity expert, said: “For Musk, backing down from Twitter’s positive efforts to pre-subvert or debunk false claims, days before a major election, is simply a terrible time. .”

Twitter will charge $8 per month for verification. What do you want to know.

The cuts have also rattled members of civil rights and advocacy groups who met Musk earlier this week to share their concerns about his takeover. Musk had “promised to maintain and enforce election integrity measures that were on Twitter’s books prior to its takeover,” Jessica González, co-leader of the Free Press group, said Friday. “With today’s massive 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 civil rights group Color of Change, took issue with Musk’s proposal to change Twitter’s “verified” system just before midterm, saying he “could have [an] an unprecedented impact on electoral chaos.

“Any right-wing troll can pay $8 on Monday, get a blue checkmark, then change their username to ‘CNN’ or ‘Georgia Secretary of State’ and show up as verified and call races,” he said. he declares.

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Even before the layoffs, experts had warned that Twitter did not have enough staff to handle content moderation. An audit that corporate whistleblower Peiter Zatko commissioned from Alethea Group revealed that Twitter’s integrity teams were consistently understaffed and “had to make significant compromises.”

During the US elections, Twitter has established an election team that includes people outside of the main content moderation units to help identify threats; the company’s ability to staff this unit will likely be affected by the cuts.

Researchers who study election disinformation said there was also uncertainty about what the firings on Twitter would mean as voters across the country head to the polls.

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

“Some of the ways this platform worked yesterday will not be the way it works today, tomorrow and before Tuesday’s election,” she said.

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

On alternative platforms, meanwhile, there was rejoicing over the possibility of less moderation of content on Twitter. A user with more than 72,000 followers on the Telegram chat app celebrated that the planned changes were taking place ‘JUST BEFORE THE US ELECTION’ so that ‘everything on Tuesday…lots more people will be talking about it on Twitter.”

For Donovan, this expectation may actually lessen the impact of misinformation. “Because the chaotic changes on Twitter have unfolded in public view, many people are already going to be skeptical of the information they get from the platform,” she said. “It’s not considered a very reliable source at this time.”

Some employees in midterm-related positions announced on Twitter that they had been terminated. Michele Austin, the company’s director of US and Canadian public policy, wrote that she helped lead the 2022 midterm reviews on the platform and was “in denial” that her time in the business was over.

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

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

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

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