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Elon Musk’s rapid changes at Twitter are putting the safety of its most vulnerable users around the world, including human rights activists, free speech advocates and people isolated in autocratic countries, at risk, according to the social network’s former head of trust and security.
“People should very thoughtfully and carefully weigh the costs and benefits of using Twitter in light of their personal security situation,” said Yoel Roth, who resigned as Twitter’s head of Trust and Security. All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro. “And that’s a terrifying prospect to come to terms with, especially for many people who have spent the better part of a decade building a platform, an audience and a community on Twitter.”
Since Musk completed his $44 billion purchase of Twitter in late October, the billionaire has overhauled the company and the platform, sowing chaos and confusion for employees, users and the advertisers he depends on.
Musk quickly changed Twitter’s previous approach to what was allowed and what was not. It reinstated accounts that had been banned for violating Twitter’s rules, including former President Donald Trump’s account, which was banned after the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol.
Last week, Musk announced a “general amnesty” for many suspended accounts (though he also suspended rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, after Ye posted a swastika on his Star of David on Thursday). This week, Twitter quietly updated its online rulebook, saying it no longer has a policy against misleading claims about COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Musk laid off half of the company’s workforce and issued an ultimatum to the remaining employees to join the new “hardcore” Twitter or quit. This dramatically reduces the number of people working to keep Twitter users safe. The cuts include contract content moderators, the company’s human rights team and investigators working to prevent political manipulation and child sexual exploitation material.
“That’s the real risk. You can’t do this with a skeleton crew,” Roth said.
Twitter, which no longer has a communications staff, did not respond to a request for comment. One blog post Signed this week by “Team Twitter,” the company said its policies have not changed and that it “continues to work diligently to protect the platform from hateful behavior, abusive behavior, and any violation of Twitter’s guidelines.” It said the trust and safety team “remains strong and well-resourced”.
Roth said Twitter has rightly been criticized for being too slow to change. But he’s excited by Musk’s rapid turnaround of the small but highly influential social network.
“Perhaps instead of a culture of too much slowness, Mr. Musk presents a culture of moving fast and ultimately, unfortunately, disrupting everything,” Roth said.
In Roth’s nearly eight years at Twitter, he has seen the company through a cascade of crises, from Russian interference in the 2016 election to the company’s unprecedented decision to ban Trump.
After Musk took control, Roth was one of the few senior executives left at the company as the new owner fired top management.
Musk on Twitter and Musk in private
Roth described the gap between Musk’s public persona as a brash and capricious autocrat — Musk changed his bio to “Chief Twit” after closing the deal — and the seasoned executive with whom Roth interacted.
“Those cartoons didn’t do justice to my experience with him,” Roth said. “On many occasions in the weeks we worked together, when a situation arose and I would explain the rules, explain the factors affecting the situation, and suggest a course of action consistent with our policies, he listens and often accepts that approach.”
For example, one of Musk’s first priorities was to bring back some controversial accounts, including Babylon Bee, a conservative satirical site that was suspended for misrepresenting a Biden administration official.
Roth and Musk discussed whether the account reinstatement would be a broader change to Twitter’s anti-misgendering rules or a single exception.
“[Musk] Ultimately, it was certain that such one-off actions would violate Twitter’s rules and create gaps in enforcement that would make Twitter a less trusted place.” (Mask will continue to restore the Babylon Bee account. Others after Roth resigns).
But as the days passed, Roth found that wasn’t always the case. When Musk took over, Roth wrote down “red lines” he didn’t want to cross, including breaking the law and lying to the public. Important: it would only stay as long as decisions were made based on Twitter’s policies and principles.
“What is important for me is not the decision, but how the decision is made. “I didn’t want to be a part of the shocking things [Twitter’s approach to governing the platform] with capricious decision making. And it’s a pity that it happened.”
Roth resigned from Twitter on Nov. 10, a day after Twitter unsuccessfully introduced an $8-a-month subscription plan that gave users blue ticks. Audits previously showed that the company verified the identity of high-profile users, but under the new program, Twitter made no effort to verify that subscribers were who they claimed to be.
This led to a flood of accounts impersonating politicians, celebrities and big brands, further straining relations with advertisers already wary of the platform’s direction under Musk. Roth’s team produced a lengthy document warning about exactly how the feature could be abused in this way and suggesting safeguards to mitigate those risks, but it was largely ignored.
The day before his resignation, Roth appeared in a public Twitter audio chat with Musk, where they tried to reassure advertisers that the platform was still a safe place for their brands.
Advertisers are fleeing, hate speech is on the rise
Less than a month after Musk took office, half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers stopped spending on the platform, according to data compiled by the liberal nonprofit Media Matters for America.
Civil rights groups have documented an increase in hate speech on Twitter since Musk took office. The company said a trolling campaign on far-right message boards led to an increase in racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs immediately after the deal, but it stepped up enforcement and banned many of the accounts responsible.
On Friday, Musk tweeted a graph showing hate speech “impressions” — the number of times people see such tweets — are down from what they were before the takeover.
Hate speech impressions (# of tweet views) continue to decline despite significant user growth!@TwitterSafety will publish data weekly.
Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of speech. Negativity should and will reach less than positivity. pic.twitter.com/36zl29rCSM
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 2, 2022
But a new report from the nonprofit Center Against Digital Hate found that the number of daily tweets containing hate speech was “significantly higher” than the baseline before Twitter bought it in late November. For example, the number of tweets containing the n-word tripled during that time.
Musk disputed the CCDH report “completely false” and said there were impressions of hate speech Less than 0.1% From what was seen on Twitter. He promised to publish his hate speech impression rate weekly.
Roth said he and his former colleagues were “heartbroken” to see what happened to Twitter’s efforts to keep users safe.
“What happens on Twitter can move markets, change elections and affect the safety of millions of people around the world,” he said. “More than anything, the people [who have left the company] Given the importance of Twitter in the world, they are worried about what will happen if there is no team to do this kind of work.”