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Twitter's former safety chief warns Musk is moving fast and "breaking things"

Yoel Roth used to be Twitter's Head of Trust & Safety until he resigned in early November. He worries about the changes Elon Musk is making to the platform.
David Odisho
Getty Images
Yoel Roth used to be Twitter's Head of Trust & Safety until he resigned in early November. He worries about the changes Elon Musk is making to the platform.

Elon Musk's rapid changes at Twitter are risking the safety of its most vulnerable users around the world, including human rights activists, free speech advocates and marginalized people in autocratic countries, according to the social network's former head of trust and safety.

"People need to very thoughtfully and carefully weigh the costs and benefits of using Twitter, given their personal security situation," Yoel Roth, who resigned from his position as Twitter's Head of Trust & Safety, told All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro. "And that's a terrifying prospect to have to come to terms with, especially for many people who have spent the better part of a decade building a platform and an audience and a community on Twitter."

Since Musk completed his $44 billion purchase of Twitter in late October, the billionaire has upended the company and the platform, sowing chaos and confusion for employees, users and the advertisers it depends on.

Musk has rapidly transformed Twitter's previous approach to what is and isn't allowed. He reinstated accounts that had been barred for violating Twitter's rules, including that of former President Donald Trump, who was banned after the Jan. 6th, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Last week, Musk announced a "general amnesty" for many suspended accounts (although he also suspended Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, on Thursday after Ye posted an image of a swastika inside a Star of David). This week, Twitter quietly updated its online rulebook to say it was no longer enforcing policies against misleading claims about COVID-19.

Meanwhile Musk laid off half the company's staff and issued an ultimatum asking remaining employees to commit to a new "hardcore" Twitter or resign. That's dramatically shrunk 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 curb political manipulation and child sexual abuse material.

"That's the real risk. You can't do this work with a skeleton crew," Roth said.

Twitter, which no longer has a communications staff, did not respond to a request for comment. In a blog post this week signed by "The Twitter Team," the company said its policies have not changed and that it "continues its diligent work to keep the platform safe from hateful conduct, abusive behavior, and any violation of Twitter's rules." It said the trust and safety team "remains strong and well-resourced."

Roth said Twitter had been justifiably criticized for being too slow to change. But Musk's rapid transformation of the small, but highly influential, social network alarms him.

"In place of that perhaps overly slow culture, Mr. Musk is introducing a culture of moving quickly and, unfortunately, breaking things as a result," Roth said.

In the nearly eight years Roth spent at Twitter, he saw 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 high-level executives remaining at the company as the new owner fired top management.

Musk on Twitter versus Musk in private

Roth described a 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 whom Roth interacted with.

"Those caricatures weren't true to my experience with him," Roth said. "A lot of the times in the weeks that we worked together, when a situation would come up and I would explain the rules, I would explain the factors influencing the situation, and I would suggest a course of action that was aligned with our policies, he would listen to and, oftentimes, accept that approach."

For example, one of Musk's first priorities was to bring back some controversial accounts, including the Babylon Bee, a conservative satirical site that was suspended for misgendering a Biden administration official.

Roth and Musk discussed whether reinstating the account would entail a broader change to Twitter's rules against misgendering or be a singular exception.

"[Musk] was convinced ultimately that taking that kind of one-off action would undermine Twitter's rules and would create gaps in consistency of enforcement that would make Twitter a less trustworthy place," Roth said. (Musk would go on to reinstate the Babylon Bee's account along with others after Roth resigned).

But as the days went on, Roth found that wasn't always the case. When Musk took over, Roth wrote down "red lines" he was unwilling to cross, including breaking the law and lying publicly. An important one: he would only stay as long as decisions were made based on Twitter's policies and principles.

"What matters to me, ultimately, is not the decision, but how the decision is made," he said. "I wouldn't want to be a part of undermining [Twitter's approach to governing the platform] with capricious decision-making. And unfortunately, that's what happened."

Roth resigned from Twitter on Nov. 10th, a day after Twitter's botched rollout of an $8 a month subscription plan giving users blue checkmarks. The checks previously indicated the company had verified the identity of high-profile users, but under the new program, Twitter wasn't making any effort to confirm subscribers were who they claimed to be.

That unleashed a flood of accounts impersonating politicians, celebrities and big brands, further inflaming relations with advertisers, who were already wary of the platform's direction under Musk. Roth's team had prepared a lengthy document warning how the feature could be abused in exactly this way, and proposing guardrails to mitigate those risks, but was largely ignored.

Just the day before he quit, Roth had appeared with Musk in a public Twitter audio chat where they attempted to reassure advertisers that the platform was still a safe place for their brands.

Advertisers flee, hate speech increases

Less than a month after Musk took over, half of Twitter's top 100 advertisers appeared to have halted spending on the platform, according to data compiled by the liberal nonprofit Media Matters for America.

Civil rights groups have documented a rise in hate speech on Twitter since Musk took over. The company had said a trolling campaign originating on far-right message boards drove a surge in racist, homophobic and antisemitic slurs right after the deal closed, but that it had stepped up enforcement and banned many of the accounts responsible.

On Friday, Musk tweeted a graph showing "impressions" of hate speech – meaning how many times people saw such tweets – are lower than the level before he took control.

But a new report from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate found the daily number of tweets containing hateful terms was "substantially higher" in late November, compared to the baseline before he bought Twitter. The number of tweets with the n-word tripled in that time, for example.

Musk disputed CCDH's report as "utterly false" and said hate speech impressions are less than 0.1% of what's seen on Twitter. He pledged to publish the rate of hate speech impressions weekly.

Roth said he and former colleagues are "heartbroken" to see what's happening to their efforts to keep Twitter users safe.

"What happens on Twitter can move markets, can change elections, and it can impact the safety of millions of people around the world," he said. "More than anything else, people [who have left the company] are worried about what will happen, given Twitter's importance in the world, if there isn't a team left to do that type of work."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.