A former top Twitter official who oversaw the company’s content moderation before abruptly leaving this month warns that Twitter owner Elon Musk’s autocratic management style runs the risk of pushing the company headlong into unforced business mistakes, content moderation disasters, and the degradation of core platform features that help keep vulnerable users safe.
Yoel Roth, the former head of site integrity at the social media company, said during his first public appearance since leaving Twitter on November 10 that the botched rollout of a paid verification feature “is an example of a disaster that slipped through” amid the chaos Musk brought to Twitter and the possibility of further disasters made it impossible to stay.
Musk’s proposal to give a verified check mark to every customer who paid $8 a month was plagued by “obvious” difficulties, which Roth and other colleagues attempted to alert Musk to. Musk persisted nevertheless, and as a result, a flurry of new fake accounts appeared, pretending to be well-known companies, sportsmen, and other verified users. This quickly caused Twitter to stop the service.
At a conference held by the journalistic organization Knight Foundation, Roth said, “It went off the tracks exactly the ways that we predicted.” The latest proof of a billionaire CEO who follows his gut at the expense of almost everyone else comes from a top Twitter executive who was in frequent contact with Musk in the turbulent early days of his control of the firm, a time marked by internal strife and a catastrophic advertising revolt.
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Roth’s resignation wasn’t the result of an explosive argument with Musk, and the incident involving Twitter’s sponsored verification service was just one of several considerations, according to Roth. Roth continued, likening his final weeks at the firm to standing before a leaky dam, desperately attempting to plug the gaps but knowing that something would eventually get past him. The experience, however, served as an example of the damage Musk’s carefree style can cause.
Twitter is purging a lot of spam/scam accounts right now, so you may see your follower count drop
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 1, 2022
In the one-hour interview, Roth warned that Twitter has become less safe as a result of Musk’s lax approach to content moderation and his lack of a transparent process for establishing and enforcing platform policies. This is due, in part, to the fact that there aren’t enough staff members left who are aware of the constant attempts by malicious actors to game the system in ways that automated algorithms are unable to detect.
People aren’t just standing around, he declared. They are actively thinking of new ways to behave badly online. He recommended users keep an eye on the performance of crucial security tools like blocking, muting, and protecting tweets as early warning indicators the platform may be failing. Run if protected tweets stop functioning, he said.
Roth presented himself as a voice of stability and calm at the center of a business going through a significant transition for two weeks after Musk completed his purchase of Twitter. Roth was aware that Musk was leveraging him to prevent advertisers from leaving the platform by keeping him on staff. Roth added, though, that he and others who remained on Twitter might have had some influence over Musk and prevented him from acting unilaterally, something he had “many opportunities” to do.
Roth sought to reassure the public that Twitter’s trust and safety work continued unhindered even as he spent his first days in the new administration combating a “surge in hateful conduct on Twitter,” which was ostensibly intended to test Musk’s tolerance for racism and antisemitism on the platform.
He provided information about the platform’s ongoing enforcement activities and minimized the effect of Twitter’s large layoffs on its content moderation team, claiming that the staff reductions were less severe there than elsewhere in the company.
Roth and Musk both spoke on Nov. 9 at a public Twitter Spaces event aimed at convincing advertisers to stay on the platform. Roth waxed upbeat about Twitter’s intentions to combat hate speech during the hour-long session, which was attended by more than 100,000 people, including representatives of Adidas, Chevron, and other large corporations. Several other senior executives, including Twitter’s chief privacy officer and chief information security officer, also abruptly left their positions the day after Roth did.
Roth said in a subsequent op-ed for The New York Times that Musk’s improvised and intensely personal approach to content control was the main factor in his decision to leave. Musk was charged in Roth’s essay with fostering a “lack of legitimacy” with his rash decisions and lengthy statements on Twitter’s policies.
Roth claimed on Tuesday that the common narrative painting Musk as a villain is inaccurate and does not reflect his interactions with him. Musk, he claimed, surrounds himself with people who hardly ever put him to the test.
Roth made several promises to himself before Musk assumed control of Twitter that would eventually lead to his decision to resign. He claimed there was a limit, but it was never crossed: Roth wouldn’t tell lies for Musk. His decision to retire was eventually motivated by another limit, which he said will be reached “if Twitter starts being administered by authoritarian fiat rather than by a policy.”
In 2020, after the business added a fact-check message to bogus tweets by then-US President Donald Trump, Roth’s involvement at Twitter came under significant scrutiny. The argument that Roth and Twitter were prejudiced against the president was supported by tweets that Roth posted in 2016 and 2017 that were disparaging of the president and his supporters.
On Election Day 2016, Roth tweeted, “I’m just saying, we fly over those states that voted for a racist tangerine for a reason.” This was one of his tweets. When defending Roth, Twitter said, “It’s disheartening to see individual employees vilified for corporate decisions. No one on Twitter is responsible for our policies or enforcement actions.