Twitter death watch captivates millions



SAN FRANCISCO — New owner Elon Musk struggled Friday to harness the chaos he’s unleashed at Twitter, summoning the remaining engineers to the San Francisco headquarters and issuing new edicts on content moderation.

Musk called employees who “actually write software” to the afternoon summit a day after the chaotic exodus of hundreds of employees who refused to sign a pledge to work longer hours and sought to take him up on an offer of three months’ pay as severance. As they assembled, Musk tweeted that Twitter would stop amplifying hate speech and restore a few controversial accounts, though not that of former president Donald Trump.

The series of emails and tweets underscored the personal nature of Musk’s oversight of a social media platform that has 237 million daily users, many of whom had tweeted their concerns in the previous 24 hours that Twitter was about to collapse — something experts said was a likely eventuality, though not necessarily imminent.

Major companies have paused advertising on Twitter, adding to the financial pressure on the debt-laden enterprise, and an on-again, off-again relaunch of paid verification marks has spawned pranks and scams while confounding loyal users.

Musk’s emails to engineers, however, suggested a realization that the worst may yet to come. The emails even went out to staffers who’d walked out Thursday rather than sign the pledge.

Musk also asked all recipients to send him screenshots of their recent code and explain what it had accomplished. While the initial email included no instructions for remote employees, a subsequent one said Musk would try to speak via video to them — but that employees were only excused if they have a family emergency or “cannot physically get to Twitter HQ.”

In a third email eight minutes later, he asked employees to fly to San Francisco, saying he would be at the office until midnight on Friday and back again Saturday morning. Yet another missive an hour later said flying “would be appreciated, but is not essential.”

The requests to help him “better understand the Twitter tech stack” struck many engineers as absurdly late, given that he had fired about half of what had been more than 7,500 employees two weeks ago and then issued an ultimatum on Wednesday that prompted a subsequent wave of departures.

Several critical teams essential to keeping the site functioning were cut to a single engineer or none by the departures Thursday, leaving the company partially on autopilot and likely to crash sooner or later, engineers said.

While there were no widespread reports of outages on Friday, “Every mistake in code and operations is now deadly” said a former engineer who departed the company this week. Those left “are going to be overwhelmed, overworked and, because of that, more likely to make mistakes.”

The team that runs the service Gizmoduck, which powers and stores all information in user profiles across the site, was entirely gone, according to a recent department head who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to detail the departures.

Even without a mistake, the system can run only for so long with so little upkeep, tweeted Ramin Khatibi, a site reliability engineer who left Twitter in 2019: “The fact that Twitter continues to work is a testament to the 1000s of engineer years spent building that reliability. But as engineers, we know that failure is coming without continued investment to protect against the next thing.”

It wasn’t clear Friday who was still employed and for how long. Access to internal systems had not been cut for many who walked out, though several people who did not sign the pledge said Twitter locked them out of their corporate laptops on Friday, the first confirmation that they had effectively resigned. Employees estimated that roughly 1,000 refused to sign the pledge Thursday.

Half the trust and safety policy team resigned, including a majority of those who work on spotting misinformation, spam, fake accounts and impersonation, according to two employees familiar with the team. Many of those who chose to stay did so to keep their health insurance or because they would be subject to deportation without a job.

Meanwhile, Musk plowed ahead with moderation decisions, announcing on Twitter that the company had reinstated accounts including those of comedian Kathy Griffin, who had mocked him, conservative humor site Babylon Bee, and right-wing self help guru Jordan Peterson. The Bee and Peterson had been suspended for anti-transgender posts.

Musk previously had said banning and unbanning would wait until a moderation council had been appointed and had drafted rules that would allow for consistent decisions. But there was no announcement that such a council of outside advisers had been appointed, drawing criticism from some of the civil rights leaders that had met with Musk shortly after he took over the site.

Jessica J. González, the co-CEO of media advocacy group Free Press, said Musk appeared to be going back on his promise to the civil rights groups that there would be an open process for decisions about account reinstatements.

“He said there would be a transparent, an open process before anyone was reinstated,” she told The Post. “I have not seen an announcement of an open and transparent process.”

“Should we suppose his tweet is his notice and now we’re supposed to comment?” said González, who had attended the meeting with Musk. She said the advocacy group had not yet heard anything more from Twitter about the company’s plans to create a content moderation council.

Musk also tweeted that hateful or negative tweets would be barred from algorithmic boosting, even though the team working on ethical artificial intelligence had been laid off. “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter,” his tweet said. “You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out, which is no different from the rest of the Internet.”

In an opinion piece Friday in the New York Times, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, said he had resigned recently because it was clear Musk’s capriciousness would continue, making already complex decisions about content unworkable.

“A Twitter whose policies are defined by unilateral edict has little need for a trust and safety function dedicated to its principled development,” Roth wrote.

Roth also warned that Apple’s and Google’s stores could boot Twitter’s app if they determined the company was not effectively filtering hate speech, pornography and other unwanted content.

Hate speech jumped after Musk’s takeover late last month, and civil rights groups complained in personal meetings with him afterward that the company was headed down a path that had led other social media companies to drastic reckonings and restoration of strong moderation policies.

As users and employees alike waited Friday to see how the resignations would play out on the platform, it wasn’t clear that there would be immediate technical failures because Twitter’s systems are so complex, said an employee who did not sign Musk’s pledge and spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the state of the platform.

The systems could suffer during the World Cup, typically a time when Twitter use surges, the person said. Aware of such predictions, Musk tweeted: “First World Cup match on Sunday! Watch on Twitter for best coverage & real-time commentary.”

The systems could also slowly degrade over time, the person said. Or it could take longer to make fixes to routine problems that arise following the departures.

Most risky of all, this person and another former engineer said, will be when staff try to implement one of the many new things Musk wants.

“Complex systems such as Twitter are most in danger of breaking when engineers attempt to make live changes to add features,” the second person said. “Any change is inherently risky. Twitter is a global communications utility. Change at our scale means even the smallest issues have huge impact.”

Will Oremus, Naomi Nix and Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.


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