The billionaire owner of the social media platform has fired thousands of people across Twitter ahead of reported plans that he will launch Twitter’s new verification subscription plan just before the election.
Teams of employees at Twitter who were responsible for monitoring the upcoming midterm elections on the platform have been decimated as part of mass layoffs implemented today by new owner Elon Musk. Those that remain say they do not have access to critical tools used for certain content moderation decisions, sources in a position to know told Forbes.
As part of his takeover of Twitter, Musk dramatically slashed the company’s workforce on Friday, just days before the 2022 midterm elections. Employees were told Thursday night that they would receive notice the next morning stating whether they were still employed. Multiple now-former employees told Forbes that they were locked out of their computers and work-related accounts before receiving an official email from the company. This morning Twitter exploded with reports from staffers who’d been sacked as part of Musk’s takeover.
Musk is reportedly planning to roll out paid verification on November 7, where anyone can pay $8 to receive a blue checkmark next to their name. According to documents viewed by the New York Times, the company has no current plans for a verification measure that would ensure that subscribers are who they say they are, a process crucial to preventing impersonation, especially for high-profile users. Users who are already verified won’t lose their checkmark for months, reports say. Twitter’s edit button, which previously was only available to Twitter Blue subscribers, could be free and open to all as soon as next week, Bloomberg reports.
“The timing of Twitter Blue verification and the edit button is already a huge risk, even without half the team gone.”
These two product changes, combined with the layoffs of employees focused on monitoring conversations on the platform as well as election safety, could make Twitter an even less trustworthy place for people looking for information on Election Day. “The timing of Twitter Blue verification and the edit button is already a huge risk, even without half the team gone,” one person with knowledge of the company’s election efforts told Forbes.
Still, this person expressed cautious confidence that the remaining team will be able to manage the election safely and smoothly because of automated systems and processes that are already in place. “Even with all this noise we’re still in better shape relative to the 2020 election in many ways,” they said.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a comment request.
Katie Harbath, a former Meta public policy director who ran its team responsible for managing elections, told Forbes she was alarmed at the limitations abruptly placed on Twitter’s elections arm and the potential to miss problematic trends at such a high-stakes moment in politics. She said she is most concerned about the mis- and disinformation threats on and after Election Day.
“More groups are trying to push the boundaries of what they can and cannot say… so you could end up having more mis- or disinfo get through, particularly after Election Day,” she told Forbes. She added that she’s “worried about the potential of violence and just wrong information for people about where/when/how to vote.”
While Twitter has a relatively small audience of approximately 250 million compared to Meta’s social media platforms, which boast over a billion users each, it has an outsized influence on politics and news.
Vote.org, a nonprofit that has enlisted internet stars to galvanize American voters, told Forbes that Twitter (along with Instagram) has been the biggest driver of registrations through social media this election cycle. “For some of the larger influencers, when they tweet, we definitely see a barrage of registrations come through,” said CEO Andrea Hailey, noting that in the social media era, Twitter is the platform where this type of information has lived.
Republican politicians in particular have used Twitter, along with other platforms, to falsely claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, who was banned from Twitter after the January 6th insurrection. In recent days, Musk himself has also promoted a right-wing conspiracy related to the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, before deleting the tweet.
Twitter’s new management made deep cuts across the entire company. Members of the company’s curation team, which was responsible for managing trending topics and “highlighting and contextualizing” news events, took to the platform to say that their entire team had been laid off. Members of the company’s AI ethics team said the same.
Meanwhile, some already verified users changed their names to Elon Musk to illustrate one of the problems inherent to allowing anyone to pay for a blue checkmark — that it will encourage the impersonation of high-profile people, adding to the potential for greater spread of misinformation.
“There are really pernicious forces happening on the platform that have a real material effect and the harm associated with them can extend off the platform,” said Edward Perez, who formerly led the product team that included Twitter’s civic integrity operation. “I’m not convinced Elon Musk fully understands that.”
Still, some fear the frenzy that Musk has precipitated could overshadow other potential threats heading into Election Day.
“Is that us taking our eye off the ball of the bigger picture?” said Harbath, the former Meta elections lead, noting the enormity of the online ecosystem that can affect the midterms. “A lot of advertising is happening on streaming services where we have no ad transparency, whatsoever, to understand what they’re doing and [who] they can be microtargeting.”
“Twitter is an important platform, yes, but it is certainly not the only platform,” she added, “and it is not the one that a lot of people who are day-to-day regular voters are paying attention to.”
John Paczkowski and David Jeans contributed reporting.