The mass layoffs at Twitter that diminished several teams, including staff on the company’s safety and misinformation teams, could spell disaster during the US midterm elections next week, experts have warned.
The company has laid off around 50% of its workforce, according to news reports; a figure that Musk and others have not disputed, amounting to an estimated 3,700 people.
The internal chaos unfolding at Twitter, in addition to a sudden lack of staff and resources dedicated to counteracting misinformation, has created ideal conditions for election misinformation to thrive, said Paul Barrett, an expert in disinformation and fake news at New York University.
“Twitter is in the midst of a category 5 hurricane, and that is not a good environment for fostering vigilance when dealing with inevitable attempts to spread falsehoods and hateful content on a very influential platform,” he said.
Elon Musk and other senior figures have sought to re-assure the public. Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, said in a tweet on Friday that the layoffs affected “approximately 15%” of the trust and safety team – responsible for combating misinformation – with its “frontline moderation staff experiencing the least impact”.Musk also stated that he had spoken to civil society leaders at the Anti-Defamation League and the nonprofit Color of Change about “how Twitter will continue to combat hate and harassment and enforce its election integrity policies”.
However, members of those groups claimed on Friday that in laying off the teams responsible for retaining election integrity, Musk had “betray[ed]” those promises. They called on advertisers to pull funding from Twitter as risks around elections continue to mount.
“Retaining and enforcing election-integrity measures requires an investment in the human expert staff, factcheckers, and moderators, who are being shown the door today,” said Jessica J González, co-CEO of civil liberties group Free Press.
In addition to a portion of its trust and safety team, Twitter appears to have axed the entire curation team, responsible for creating guides to authoritative information often surfaced alongside topics with high risk of misinformation. A London-based team member tweeted on Friday that the group at Twitter “is no more”. Another former team member echoed the claims on Friday, stating that the changes “will make Twitter noisier, more dangerous and less interesting”.
Twitter also appears to have eliminated its ethics, transparency, and accountability team, which is in charge of opening up the platform’s algorithm for external review and studying the amplification of misinformation and other content.
Although Musk has not made any concrete policy changes, nor allowed back any high-profile banned figures such as Donald Trump, the lack of staffing could pose a major problem for enforcing existing policies, Barrett said. Although automated systems are likely to continue to run, “you need human beings to pick up subtle forms of misinformation”.
“It does not seem like there will be many people at the desk in the office prepared for oversight of content that could contribute to the continuing erosion of trust in our election system,” Barrett said.
In addition to misinformation concerns on Twitter, cuts to infrastructure have raised alarm that the platform itself may not survive the influx of traffic expected during the elections. The issue was called into focus earlier this year when a whistleblower accused the company of “egregious” failings in security and safety.
An internal source at the company told Reuters that the infrastructure cuts were “delusional”, adding that when user traffic surges, the service can fail “in spectacular ways”.
While it is too soon to measure concrete impacts of Twitter’s restructuring, early tracking shows hate speech is increasing. Researchers from Montclair State University found in the 12 hours immediately after Musk took ownership on Twitter, “vulgar and hostile” rhetoric saw an “immediate, visible and measurable spike”, including a rise in racial slurs.
“What we have seen so far has been a canary in the coal mine for what might come in the days immediately before and – crucially – in the days after the election,” Barrett said. “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation, and unfortunately many of those hands are out the door.”