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Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
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# Job Losses
Twitter layoffs before US midterms fuel misinformation concerns as Musk defends sackings
Twitter fired half of its 7,500-strong staff yesterday.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 5th 2022, 5:49 PM

TWITTER’S NEW OWNER Elon Musk has pledged the platform will not devolve into a “free-for-all hellscape,” but experts warn that mass layoffs may deeply impair the social network’s ability to curb misinformation.

The company fired roughly half of its 7,500-strong workforce only days before next week’s midterm elections in the United States, when a spike in fake content is expected across social media.

The cuts, which come after Musk’s blockbuster $44 billion buyout of the company, hit multiple divisions, including trust and safety teams that manage content moderation as well as engineering and machine learning, US reports said.

“I would be real careful on this platform in the coming days… about what you retweet, who you follow, and even your own sense of what’s going on,” said Kate Starbird, a disinformation researcher and assistant professor at the University of Washington.

Starbird warned in her own Twitter post of an increased risk of “impersonation” attempts, “coordinated disinformation by manipulators” and “hoaxes that attempt to get you to spread falsehoods.”

Jessica Gonzalez, co-chief executive officer at the nonpartisan group Free Press, said she was concerned that Twitter’s content-moderation efforts could potentially slacken prior to the election, “when we know social media goes off the rails to misinform, intimidate and harm voters of color.”

“Twitter was already a hellscape before Musk took over, and his actions… will only make it worse,” said Gonzalez.

Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, sought to soothe those concerns, saying the platform’s front-line moderation staff were least impacted by the cuts and combating harmful misinformation during the midterms was a “top priority.”

“While we said goodbye to incredibly talented friends and colleagues… our core moderation capabilities remain in place,” Roth tweeted.

‘Deeply troubling’ 

Free Press is part of a coalition of more than 60 civil society groups that yesterday called on advertisers to boycott the platform until it committed to being a “safe place.”

Members of the coalition met with Musk earlier this week after academic studies reported a dramatic increase in hate speech, Nazi memes and racist slurs after his acquisition of the company.

One study by Montclair State University found that Twitter’s acquisition by Musk, a self-professed free-speech absolutist, had “created the perception by extremist users that content restrictions would be alleviated.”

“We  met with Elon Musk earlier this week to express our profound concerns about some of his plans and the spike in toxic content after his acquisition,” said the coalition, which uses the hashtag “Stop Toxic Twitter.”

“Since that time, hate and disinformation have continued to proliferate, and Musk has taken actions that make us fear that the worst is yet to come,” the group said in a statement.

But Musk rejected that assessment, tweeting that “we have actually seen hateful speech at times this week decline *below* our prior norms,” though he offered up no data to back up this assertion.

“To be crystal clear, Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged,” Musk wrote on Friday.

Musk had promised to reduce Twitter’s content restrictions, and since the acquisition has announced plans to create a “content moderation council” that will review company policies.

“While Musk has publicly committed to transparency, his decision to lay off the staff members dedicated to this work is deeply troubling,” said Zeve Sanderson, executive director of the New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

Losses 

Musk insisted that the layoffs were necessary as the company was losing more than $4 million per day.

Twitter has long struggled to generate profit and has failed to keep pace with Facebook, Instagram and TikTok in gaining new users.

An internal document seen by AFP said “roughly 50 percent” of employees were impacted and would be denied access to company computers and email on an immediate basis.

The job losses are being felt across the world, including in Ireland, where Twitter employs around 500 people at its European HQ. Former Twitter workers in Ireland tweeted yesterday that they had lost their jobs. 

Ahead of the layoffs, Twitter closed access to its offices worldwide, asking employees to stay at home to await news of their fate through an email.

Commenting last night on Twitter, Musk said that there was “no choice but to fire staff.

 The US-based billionaire blamed a fall in revenue on “activists groups”.

“Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists,” he tweeted.

Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.

Musk’s statement appeared to refer to his recent meeting with US civil rights groups in which he heard concerns that Twitter would open the floodgates to hate speech a week before midterm election in the United States.

In an effort to soothe nerves, Musk had vowed that Twitter will not become a “free-for-all hellscape”, but since taking over the company he also has shared a tweet relaying a conspiracy theory about an assault on the husband of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“We are witnessing the real time destruction of one of the world’s most powerful communication systems. Elon Musk is an erratic billionaire who is dangerously unqualified to run this platform,” said Nicole Gill, Executive Director of Accountable Tech.

She was part of a coalition of 60 rights groups calling on Friday for a boycott by advertisers of the Musk-owned platform.

Taoiseach’s comments

Taoiseach Micheál Martin criticised the way in which staff were let go, saying that it was “not acceptable” and was “fairly unprecedented”.

“We are concerned, and our concern is there for the employees of Twitter,” Martin told reporters in Co Tipperary yesterday.

“There seems to be a fairly unprecedented approach being adopted here to a global workforce and that’s manifesting itself in Ireland,” he said.

“What I would say is no matter who you are or what sector you are in, one must always treat people with dignity and respect, and the employees at Twitter deserve to be treated with respect.

With reporting from Hayley Halpin, Press Association, AFP

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