Twitter could be a new wildcard for the midterms

CNN business

For years, Twitter has been a leader in fighting disinformation and protecting elections. He was often ahead of his peers in creating and implementing new policies, and was the first major platform to ban former President Donald Trump after the Capitol uprising, prompting others to follow suit.

But there are growing concerns that the turmoil within Twitter in the first week of Elon Musk’s takeover could undermine his election credentials ahead of the midterms.

Musk’s Twitter last week laid off thousands of employees across the company, including cuts in public policy and trust and security teams, and major cuts to the curation team, which helps upload reliable information on the platform about elections and other news events. The chaos only intensified over the weekend, when Twitter first rolled out, then delayed, a controversial plan that would have allowed any user to pay to check — a proposal critics said would cause confusion over which accounts and tweets users own in the midterms. confidence

Musk promised not to change Twitter’s content policy until after the midterms. But the changes he has already made at the company have left him weakened and vulnerable, said Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

“Twitter’s Musk-driven Category 5 hurricane has the potential to disrupt the midterms,” ​​Barrett said, adding that “a large number of Twitter employees who would focus on misuse of the platform have already been fired.” they get distracted by getting out the door.”

Threats to Twitter on Election Day and its implications include well-known risks such as misleading claims of election fraud, attempts to intimidate voters or violent rhetoric, Barrett said. But Twitter’s disarray means the company will be even less prepared to identify and counter new manipulation tactics that don’t have a playbook, he added.

US election officials say there is so far no evidence of specific or credible threats to the election infrastructure, but have made it clear that private platforms such as Twitter are on their own, and responsible for managing misinformation that may appear on their websites.

“We don’t express anything on disinformation and disinformation platforms,” ​​Jen Easterly, director of the US government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), told CNN on Saturday afternoon. “That’s entirely up to those platforms — Twitter, social media — in their terms of service and how they comply.”

Twitter has said it is still committed to supporting the election and that last week’s job cuts — which hit half of the company’s workforce — were less extensive in its trust and security group, where about 15 percent of employees were let go.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and attempts to reach a spokesperson for the company resulted in a return email message indicating that they were not at the company. The layoffs appear to have hit much of Twitter’s PR team, with many officials saying their time at the company is up, among other things. Brian PoliakoffTwitter’s global head of business and customer communications, and Julie Steelehis former head of internal communications.

But the company has been largely opaque about how the layoffs could hamper Twitter’s ability to combat misinformation. Addressing the firings on Friday, Yoel Roth, the company’s chief security and integrity officer, said that 80% of Twitter’s incoming content moderation volume was “absolutely unaffected,” including the volume of Twitter’s daily content moderation actions. But Roth was describing Twitter’s ability to moderate content in terms of an internal policy change made last week, not layoffs, and the period he mentioned ended before the mass layoffs on Nov. 3 and 4.

“With early voting underway in the U.S., our election integrity efforts — including combating harmful disinformation that can suppress votes and state-sponsored intelligence operations — remain a top priority,” said Yoel Roth, the company’s chief security and integrity officer. on friday evening.

But while Twitter’s cuts to its content moderation staff may have been more severe than in other parts of the company, in some cases the sweeping layoffs wiped out entire teams, some with important roles in election coverage.

One of them was reportedly Twitter’s curation team, according to tweets from former employees. including Andrew Haigh, Twitter’s former chief curator for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The curatorial team was responsible for the site’s Moments feature, which showcased important world events and explained to users why certain topics were trending.

In recent years, Moments was increasingly being used to debunk misinformation or highlight top stories, according to a person familiar with the inner workings of the curatorial team; election day”.

Civil rights leaders have condemned the firings, saying that regardless of what Twitter says, the cuts will hurt Twitter’s ability to enforce its election policies, even if the rules themselves haven’t changed.

“It can’t enforce content moderation policies if it doesn’t have the staff to do so,” said Free Press CEO Jessica González. (Roth said Friday afternoon that “front-line moderation workers” were among those least affected by the cuts.)

Civil rights groups have led a campaign targeting Twitter’s biggest advertisers, calling for a pause in ad spending on the platform. Already this past week, major brands including General Mills and Audi have suspended advertising on Twitter, as Musk has experienced a sharp decline in revenue at the company.

To shore up Twitter’s finances, Musk has proposed a paid verification feature that allows any user to pay $8 a month to receive a blue check mark on their profiles. But that too can create electoral chaos of its own, making it harder to stamp out disinformation.

Twitter on Saturday It appeared on Saturday that it had released an app update for iOS users, with the feature already rolling out to users in the United States and other English-speaking countries.

However, the product didn’t match the marketing: users found that even though they could pay for the Twitter Blue subscription service, the promised checkmarks didn’t appear on user profiles.

Esther Crawford, Twitter’s director of product management, confirmed that the service was not yet available. written on Saturday in a tweet: “The new blue isn’t out yet – our launch sprint continues, but some people will see us making updates as we’re testing and pushing changes in real-time.”

The company delayed the launch of account verification for its paid Twitter Blue subscription plan until after the midterm elections, a source familiar with the decision confirmed to CNN.

Although Musk’s decision seems rushed don’t complicate Election Day itself, they could create additional uncertainty later in the critical period as votes are counted, not to mention the 2024 presidential campaign, which could launch as early as this month as Trump nears his formal announcement of his candidacy.

The rush to roll out an untested feature opens the door to unintended consequences after the election, such as the potential impersonation of election officials, civil rights groups said.

“Every troll on the right can pay $8 … get a blue checkmark, then change their name to CNN or Georgia Secretary of State,” Rashad Robinson, CEO of Color of Change, told reporters on the call.

Musk has argued that charging for the blue check mark will combat spammers by increasing their costs. But disinformation researchers told CNN that well-resourced adversaries, such as highly motivated state-sponsored actors seeking to interfere in elections, would see paid verification as just another cost of doing business.

Chris Krebs, former director of CISA, said Musk’s proposal changes the meaning of the verification and changes the information the symbol conveys to the user. “The verified logo has been a trusted brand, meaning ‘We’ve verified that the person is who they say they are.'” Krebs tweeted. “Now we’re ‘taking their $ and word.'”

Those complications were exposed over the weekend after several celebrities, including comedians Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin, used their verified status to mock the billionaire’s plan by naming themselves Elon Musk and changing their profiles to look like him.

Hours later, Musk walked back one of his signature pledges: that permanent bans would be “very rare” under his tenure. He he tweeted: “Going forward, any Twitter ‘parody’ that engages in ID without clearly defining it will be permanently suspended,” and without warning.

While the abrupt and sweeping policy change announced in a tweet over the weekend appears to cover accounts containing the identities of election officials, Musk did not explain the change as a response to election security concerns.

Twitter’s shake-up has turned the company itself into an election wild card.

“My instinct is that it will take a little longer for the real impacts of these changes to be felt,” said John Scott-Railton, a cybersecurity and disinformation researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. “But they will be dramatic.”