Within a week of takeover, Musk announces layoffs across Twitter

It follows week of chaos, uncertainty about the company’s future under new owner Elon Musk, days ahead of US midterms.

witter logo and a photo of Elon Musk are displayed through magnifier in this illustration
The sizeable layoffs days before US midterms have raised concerns disinformation could spread on the platform 'like wildfire' [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

Twitter Inc started a sizeable round of layoffs on Friday, alerting employees of their job status by email after barring entrances to offices and cutting off workers’ access to internal systems overnight.

The move follows a week of chaos and uncertainty about the company’s future under new owner Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, who tweeted on Friday that the service was experiencing a “massive drop in revenue” as advertisers pulled spending.

Musk did not confirm or correct investor Ron Baron at a Friday conference in New York when he asked the billionaire Tesla CEO how much money he would save after he “fired half of Twitter”.

Musk responded by talking about Twitter’s cost and revenue challenges and blamed a coalition of civil rights groups who urged big companies to halt advertising on the platform. Musk has not commented on the layoffs themselves.

“In an effort to place Twitter on a healthy path, we will go through the difficult process of reducing our global workforce on Friday,” Twitter said in an email to staff on Thursday evening, seen by the Reuters news agency, announcing the cuts that came on Friday.

The company was silent about the depth of the cuts, although internal plans reviewed by Reuters this week indicated Musk was looking to cut about 3,700 Twitter staff, or about half the workforce.

Staff who worked in engineering, communications, product, content curation and machine learning ethics were among those affected by the layoffs, according to tweets from Twitter staff.

Shannon Raj Singh, a lawyer who was Twitter’s acting head of human rights, tweeted on Friday that the entire human rights team at the company had been cut.

Musk has promised to restore free speech while preventing Twitter from descending into a “hellscape”. However, his reassurances have failed to calm large advertisers, which have expressed apprehension about his takeover for months.

Volkswagen AG recommended its brands pause paid advertising on Twitter until further notice in the wake of Musk’s takeover, it said on Friday. Its comments echoed similar remarks from other companies, including General Motors Co and General Mills Inc.

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a left-wing media watchdog and part of the civil rights coalition, said he knew of two more big advertisers that were preparing to announce that they would pause ads on the platform.

Musk tweeted that his team had made no changes to content moderation and done “everything we could” to appease the groups. “Extremely messed up! They’re (civil rights groups) trying to destroy free speech in America.”

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Eddie Perez, a Twitter civic integrity team manager who quit in September, said he fears the layoffs so close to the United States midterms could allow disinformation to “spread like wildfire”, in particular during the post-election vote-counting period.

“I have a hard time believing that it doesn’t have a material impact on their ability to manage the amount of disinformation out there,” he said, adding there simply may not be enough employees to beat it back.

Dozens of staffers tweeted they had lost access to work email and Slack channels before receiving an official notice, which they took as a sign they had been laid off.

From different parts of the world, they tweeted blue hearts and salute emojis expressing support for one another, using the hashtags #OneTeam and #LoveWhereYouWorked, a past-tense version of a slogan employees had used for years to celebrate the company’s work culture.

Twitter’s curation team, which is responsible for “highlighting and contextualizing the best events and stories that unfold on Twitter”, had been axed, employees said on the platform. The company’s communications team in India has also been laid off, according to a Twitter executive in Asia.

A team that focused on research into how Twitter employed algorithms, an issue that was a priority for Musk, was also eliminated, according to a tweet from a former senior manager at Twitter.

Senior executives, including Vice President of Engineering Arnaud Weber, also said their goodbyes on Twitter on Friday: “Twitter still has a lot of unlocked potential but I’m proud of what we accomplished,” he tweeted.

Employees of Twitter Blue, a premium subscription service, were also let go. An employee with the handle “SillyRobin” who had indicated they were laid off, quote-tweeted Musk’s previous tweet saying Twitter Blue would include a “paywall bypass” for certain publishers.

“Just to be clear, he fired the team working on this,” the employee said.

Twitter’s head of Safety & Integrity, Yoel Roth, appeared to have kept his job, as did Vice President of Product Keith Coleman, who launched a tool called Birdwatch for users to write notes on tweets they identify as misleading.

Last week, Musk endorsed Roth, citing his “high integrity” after Roth was called out over tweets critical of former US President Donald Trump years earlier. Musk has also tweeted that he likes Birdwatch.

Roth and Coleman did not respond to requests for comment. In a tweet, Roth said: “Tweeps: My DMs are always open to you. Tell me how I can help.”

Doors locked

Twitter said in its email to staffers that offices would be temporarily closed and badge access suspended “to help ensure the safety of each employee as well as Twitter systems and customer data”.

Offices in London and Dublin appeared deserted on Friday, with no employees in sight. At the London office, any evidence Twitter had once occupied the building was erased.

A receptionist at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters said a few people had trickled in and were working on the floors above despite the notice to stay away.

A class action was filed on Thursday in the US – pre-emptively on Thursday night – against Twitter by its employees, who argued the company was conducting mass layoffs without providing the required 60-day advance notice, in violation of US federal and California law, Bloomberg News reported.

The lawsuit also asked the San Francisco federal court to issue an order to restrict Twitter from soliciting employees being laid off to sign documents without informing them of the pendency of the case.

The speed of the layoffs could also open Musk and Twitter up to discrimination claims if it turns out, for instance, that they disproportionally affected women, people of colour or older workers.

Employment lawyer Peter Rahbar said most employers “take great care in doing layoffs of this magnitude” to make sure they are justified and do not unfairly discriminate or bring unwanted attention to the company.

“For some reason, he wants to lay off half the company without doing any due diligence on what these people do or who they are and without any regards to the law,” Rahbar said.

The layoffs come at a tough time for social media companies, as advertisers are scaling back and newcomers – mainly TikTok – are threatening older platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies