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Musk fires outsourced content moderators who track abuse on Twitter

Musk warns Twitter of difficult times ahead
Musk warns Twitter employees of difficult times ahead, imposes drastic changes 04:30

New Twitter owner Elon Musk is further reducing the number of workers who battle misinformation on the social media platform, with moderators who work on contract for the company learning over the weekend that they were out of a job.

Twitter and other big social media firms have relied heavily on contractors to track hate and enforce rules against harmful content. But many of those content watchdogs have now headed out the door, first when Twitter fired much of its full-time workforce by email on November 4 and now as it moves to eliminate an untold number of contract jobs.

Melissa Ingle, who worked at Twitter as a contractor for more than a year, was one of a number of contractors who said they were terminated Saturday. She said she's concerned that there's going to be an increase in abuse on Twitter with the number of workers leaving.

"I love the platform and I really enjoyed working at the company and trying to make it better. And I'm just really fearful of what's going to slip through the cracks," she said Sunday.

Ingle, a data scientist, said she worked on the data and monitoring arm of Twitter's civic integrity team. Her job involved writing algorithms to find political misinformation on the platform in countries such as the U.S., Brazil, Japan, Argentina and elsewhere.

Ingle said she was "pretty sure I was done for" when she couldn't access her work email Saturday. The notification from the contracting company she'd been hired by came two hours later.

"I'll just be putting my resumes out there and talking to people," she said. "I have two children. And I'm worried about being able to give them a nice Christmas, you know, and just mundane things like that, that are important. I just think it's particularly heartless to do this at this time."

"Mission critical"

Content-moderation expert Sarah Roberts, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who worked as a staff researcher at Twitter earlier this year, said she believes at least 3,000 contract workers were fired Saturday night.

Twitter hasn't said how many contract workers it cut. The company hasn't responded to media requests for information since Musk took over.

At Twitter's San Francisco headquarters and other offices, contract workers wore green badges while full-time workers wore blue badges. Contractors did a number of jobs to help keep Twitter running, including engineering and marketing, Roberts said. But it was the huge force of contracted moderators that was "mission critical" to the platform, said Roberts.

Cutting them will have a "tangible impact on the experience of the platform," she said.

Musk promised to loosen speech restrictions when he took over Twitter. But in the early days after Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion in late October and dismissed its board of directors and top executives, the billionaire Tesla CEO sought to assure civil rights groups and advertisers that the platform could continue tamping down hate and hate-fueled violence.

That message was reiterated by Twitter's then-head of content moderation, Yoel Roth, who tweeted that the November 4 layoffs only affected "15% of our Trust & Safety organization (as opposed to approximately 50% cuts company-wide), with our front-line moderation staff experiencing the least impact."

Musk warns of possible bankruptcy

Roth has since resigned from the company, joining an exodus of high-level leaders who were tasked with privacy protection, cybersecurity and complying with regulations. Departures include Twitter's chief privacy officer, Damien Kieran; its chief compliance officer, Marianne Fogarty; and its chief information security officer, Lea Kissner.

In a live-streamed conversation on Twitter Spaces on November 9, Musk tried to assuage advertisers, who have been fleeing Twitterciting a rise in hate speech on the platform, since he took control of it late last month and dismissed its top executives. 

MoneyWatch: Reports of bankruptcy fears at Twitter 05:44

Advertisers including Oreo maker Mondelez, Allianz, Audi, General Mills, GM, United Airlines and Pfizer have paused their ads on the platform, leading to a major cash crunch for the company. More are expected to follow. 

Musk told Twitter staff Thursday to brace for "difficult times ahead" and warned that the company could go bankrupt if it doesn't find new ways of making money.

Confusion over check marks

On November 9, Twitter rolled out an additional gray "official" check mark next to some social media accounts to indicate that the company had verified the authenticity of an account user's name. Within hours, however, Musk scrapped the plan, deciding it would only worsen Twitter's dual-class system problem. 

That same day, Twitter's original system of using blue checks to confirm an account's authenticity was replaced with an $8 monthly plan through which any user enrolled would receive blue checks next to their account and have access to some bonus features, such as fewer ads and the ability to have tweets gain greater visibility.

Experts immediately expressed concern that making the checkmark available to anyone willing to pay a fee could lead to more impostor accounts, misinformation and scams on Twitter. 

Those concerns were soon realized amid a jump in supposedly verified accounts pretending to be celebrities like Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, politicians like former President George W. Bush, and even large companies, including drugmaker Eli Lilly, as users test or exploit Twitter's new system. One twitter user with the account name @Jesus, also received a blue checkmark.

In response to the increase in imposter accounts, Twitter on Friday reversed its tune and returned the gray marker to some accounts.

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