Twitter layoffs spark fears of rise in misinformation ahead of US midterm elections

Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco, California. Credit: David Odisho via Getty Images

After Elon Musk reportedly fired half of Twitter’s employees in his first week as its new owner, experts have shared concerns over the rising prevalence of misinformation – particularly in the lead-up to the US’ midterm elections.

Musk officially took over Twitter last Thursday (October 27), immediately firing several top executives including CEO Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal and legal affairs and policy chief Vijaya Gadde. Leaked documents showed that yesterday (November 4) saw Twitter start laying off approximately 3,700 employees, leading to a class-action lawsuit

Within a matter of hours after Musk took charge, hate speech on Twitter reportedly surged by distressingly high margins. Use of the N-word, for example, is said to have increased by nearly 500 per cent, while there have also been spikes in the use of antisemitic, homophobic and transphobic slurs. Musk has previously described himself as a “free speech absolutist”.

As per The Guardian, experts fear that Twitter’s ongoing layoffs could result in an increase of political misinformation, emboldening users who wish to sway the outcome of the United States midterm elections (which will be held this Tuesday coming, November 8). 

According to Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, the company’s first wave of layoffs included “approximately 15 [per cent]” of its trust and safety team, among whose responsibilities include curbing the spread of misinformation. This has made it easier for trolls to share falsified content about the election, Paul Barrett – an expert in disinformation and fake news at New York University – told The Guardian.

“Twitter is in the midst of a category 5 hurricane,” he said, “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.”

Over the past week, Musk has reportedly met with civil society leaders at organisations like Color Of Change and the Anti-Defamation League; Intelligencer reports that he held a Zoom meeting with representatives of seven groups on Monday (November 1), and the billionaire – who is also the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla – is said to be developing a new “content moderation council” that will “include representatives with widely divergent views”. 

However, reps of some organisations have now asserted that by moving forwards with Twitter’s layoffs, Musk has reneged on the promises he made in regards to “how Twitter will continue to combat hate and harassment and enforce its election integrity policies”. Earlier this week, a coalition of 60 civil rights groups launched a campaign dubbed ‘#StopToxicTwitter’, calling on advertisers to halt spending on the platform in protest of Musk’s approach to user safety.

In a press release shared by the coalition – which according to Musk himself, has been largely successful – Jessica J González, co-CEO of civil liberties group Free Press, said: “Retaining and enforcing election-integrity measures requires an investment in the human expert staff, factcheckers, and moderators, who are being shown the door today.”

Also noted is that Twitter has seemingly shut down its Curation team (which The Guardian notes is “responsible for creating guides to authoritative information often surfaced alongside topics with high risk of misinformation”), as well as its ML Ethics, Transparency, & Accountability team. According to now-former senior engineering manager Joan Deitchman, the latter was “researching and pushing for algorithmic transparency and algorithmic choice”, which was crucial in assessing how misinformation is distributed on Twitter.

Also dissolved, per former staffer Shannon Raj Singh (who was affected by the mass layoffs), was Twitter’s Human Rights team. Barrett told The Guardian that although Twitter is likely to implement algorithmic systems to moderate content, “you need human beings to pick up subtle forms of misinformation”.

He continued: “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.

“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. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation, and unfortunately many of those hands are out the door.”

In other Twitter news, Musk recently confirmed that the platform will begin charging its users for verification, confirming rumours that he’ll increase the pricing of Twitter Blue amid an overhaul, but clarifying that said shift will come at a monthly cost of $8 (£7). The move has been largely controversial, with critics including Kathy Burke (who told Musk to “fuck off with his idea”). 

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