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Twitter’s Pared-Down Staff Said to Struggle With Misinformation Amid US Midterm Elections

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Twitter is struggling to respond to political misinformation and other harmful posts on the social media platform after Elon Musk fired roughly half of its workforce just days before the US midterm elections, according to employees who survived the cuts and an outside voting rights group.

The recent mass layoffs spared many of the people whose job it is to keep hate and misinformation off the social-media platform. Musk cut just 15 percent of those frontline content-moderation workers, compared to roughly 50 percent job cuts companywide, an executive said last week.

But in preparation for the layoffs, employees said the company also sharply reduced how many employees can look into a specific account’s digital history and behaviour — a practice necessary to investigate if it’s been used maliciously and take action to suspend it. The company said it froze access to those tools to reduce “insider risk” at a time of transition.

The developments are causing concern as the US midterm elections culminate on Tuesday. Though millions of Americans have already cast early and absentee ballots, millions more are expected to go to the polls to cast in-person votes. Election watchers fear the platform may not be equipped to handle hate speech, misinformation that could impact voter safety and security, and actors seeking to cast doubt on the legitimate winners of elections around the country.

Researchers tracking misinformation ahead of the midterms notified Twitter on Friday about three posts from well-known far-right figures that advanced debunked claims about election fraud. The posts remain up three days later. When Common Cause asked Twitter for an update on Monday, the platform said the posts were “under review.”

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Before Musk took over, Twitter responded much more quickly, said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at Common Cause. The group said they had been in regular contact with Twitter staff before Musk took over. Now, they are getting a response from a generic email address.

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“We had been getting much faster decisions from them, sometimes within hours,” said Littlewood. Now, he said, “It’s like pushing the button for the walk sign at the stop light, and nothing is happening.”

Musk gutted teams working on marketing, communications and editorial curation of what people see on Twitter. But his decision to retain most of Twitter’s content moderation team came as a welcome surprise to some inside and outside the company. Musk, after all, promised to let free speech flourish by loosening Twitter’s content restrictions and restoring accounts banned for violating those rules. He has also pledged to end the current user verification system in favour of a $7.99 (roughly Rs. 600) subscription fee.

But the fact that the content moderation team survived could mean that critical misinformation functions such as blocking incitements of political violence will continue, and some of the worst-case scenarios around election misinformation won’t be realized. Some of Musk’s own tweets have been annotated with fact-checked context in recent days.

Two employees who survived the job cuts credit a previously little-known executive Yoel Roth, Twitter’s global head of safety and integrity, for leveraging his team’s importance to Musk’s goals for Twitter while avoiding moves that might anger the mercurial Tesla CEO.

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“Yoel Roth singlehandedly saved the company,” said a Twitter employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about job security. “On the public side, he appropriately and thoughtfully engaged with Elon Musk in a way that was not subservient, but deferring, because Elon is the king.”

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Roth has become the public face of Twitter’s content moderation since Musk took over and has regularly defended Twitter’s ongoing efforts to fight harmful misinformation. Musk, a prolific tweeter with more than 110 million followers, has frequently pointed to Roth’s Twitter feed as the most reliable account of the company’s adherence to integrity standards. And the billionaire, who embraces the idea that Twitter’s past leadership suppressed right-wing views, defended Roth when ardent Musk supporters demanded his firing over past comments they thought showed Roth’s liberal bias.

Roth, who once worked at an Apple store fixing Mac computers, joined Twitter in 2015 after spending a year studying online hate speech at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, according to his LinkedIn profile. In May, he took on a senior role “responsible for all user, content, and security policies, comprising more than 120 policymakers, threat investigators, data analysts, and operations specialists.”

Roth didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A legal scholar who sits on Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, an advisory board set up in 2016, said she has long been impressed with Roth’s candor about the challenges of content moderation and the nuances of free speech — such as the importance of curbing abusive content to enable the free speech of women and others more likely to be harassed online.

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“If Musk had been able to cut everybody in content moderation and just replace it with his ‘yes’ men, he probably would have,” said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “The only reason why he hasn’t is because he maybe recognizes that would make Twitter unworkable.”

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One Twitter employee said Monday that layoff survivors were actively looking for new jobs in part because of Musk’s lack of commitment to keeping the platform free of hate speech and misinformation. Speaking anonymously because of concerns about job security, the employee said the job cuts would make Twitter’s staff less effective in following up and acting on complaints about election-related disinformation, because they included people leading civic integrity teams.

Franks said there’s always been a tension within Twitter and other social media companies between making money and protecting democracy and freedom of expression. She said that’s only getting harder under Musk, who has shown Twitter can act quickly in banning a comedian who made fun of him by impersonating his account, but who has otherwise expressed hostility towards Twitter’s anti-abuse standards.

“I would imagine that someone in a position like Roth’s at Twitter would have to play a pretty delicate game trying not to trip any of the wires, not to trigger a backlash from Musk because he’s incredibly thin-skinned,” Franks said.


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Twitter Under Elon Musk Leaning on Automation to Moderate Content Against Hate Speech

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Elon Musk’s Twitter is leaning heavily on automation to moderate content, doing away with certain manual reviews and favoring restrictions on distribution rather than removing certain speech outright, its new head of trust and safety told Reuters.

Twitter is also more aggressively restricting abuse-prone hashtags and search results in areas including child exploitation, regardless of potential impacts on “benign uses” of those terms, said Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety Product Ella Irwin.

“The biggest thing that’s changed is the team is fully empowered to move fast and be as aggressive as possible,” Irwin said on Thursday, in the first interview a Twitter executive has given since Musk’s acquisition of the social media company in late October.

Her comments come as researchers are reporting a surge in hate speech on the social media service, after Musk announced an amnesty for accounts suspended under the company’s previous leadership that had not broken the law or engaged in “egregious spam.”

The company has faced pointed questions about its ability and willingness to moderate harmful and illegal content since Musk slashed half of Twitter’s staff and issued an ultimatum to work long hours that resulted in the loss of hundreds more employees.

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And advertisers, Twitter’s main revenue source, have fled the platform over concerns about brand safety.

On Friday, Musk vowed “significant reinforcement of content moderation and protection of freedom of speech” in a meeting with France President Emmanuel Macron.

Irwin said Musk encouraged the team to worry less about how their actions would affect user growth or revenue, saying safety was the company’s top priority. “He emphasizes that every single day, multiple times a day,” she said.

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The approach to safety Irwin described at least in part reflects an acceleration of changes that were already being planned since last year around Twitter’s handling of hateful conduct and other policy violations, according to former employees familiar with that work.

One approach, captured in the industry mantra “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach,” entails leaving up certain tweets that violate the company’s policies but barring them from appearing in places like the home timeline and search.

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Twitter has long deployed such “visibility filtering” tools around misinformation and had already incorporated them into its official hateful conduct policy before the Musk acquisition. The approach allows for more freewheeling speech while cutting down on the potential harms associated with viral abusive content.

The number of tweets containing hateful content on Twitter rose sharply in the week before Musk tweeted on November 23 that impressions, or views, of hateful speech were declining, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate – in one example of researchers pointing to the prevalence of such content, while Musk touts a reduction in visibility.

Tweets containing words that were anti-Black that week were triple the number seen in the month before Musk took over, while tweets containing a gay slur were up 31%, the researchers said.

‘More risks, move fast’

Irwin, who joined the company in June and previously held safety roles at other companies including Amazon.com and Google, pushed back on suggestions that Twitter did not have the resources or willingness to protect the platform.

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She said layoffs did not significantly impact full-time employees or contractors working on what the company referred to as its “Health” divisions, including in “critical areas” like child safety and content moderation.

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Two sources familiar with the cuts said that more than 50 percent of the Health engineering unit was laid off. Irwin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the assertion, but previously denied that the Health team was severely impacted by layoffs.

She added that the number of people working on child safety had not changed since the acquisition, and that the product manager for the team was still there. Irwin said Twitter backfilled some positions for people who left the company, though she declined to provide specific figures for the extent of the turnover.

She said Musk was focused on using automation more, arguing that the company had in the past erred on the side of using time- and labor-intensive human reviews of harmful content.

“He’s encouraged the team to take more risks, move fast, get the platform safe,” she said.

On child safety, for instance, Irwin said Twitter had shifted toward automatically taking down tweets reported by trusted figures with a track record of accurately flagging harmful posts.

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Carolina Christofoletti, a threat intelligence researcher at TRM Labs who specializes in child sexual abuse material, said she has noticed Twitter recently taking down some content as fast as 30 seconds after she reports it, without acknowledging receipt of her report or confirmation of its decision.

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In the interview on Thursday, Irwin said Twitter took down about 44,000 accounts involved in child safety violations, in collaboration with cybersecurity group Ghost Data.

Twitter is also restricting hashtags and search results frequently associated with abuse, like those aimed at looking up “teen” pornography. Past concerns about the impact of such restrictions on permitted uses of the terms were gone, she said.

The use of “trusted reporters” was “something we’ve discussed in the past at Twitter, but there was some hesitancy and frankly just some delay,” said Irwin.

“I think we now have the ability to actually move forward with things like that,” she said.

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© Thomson Reuters 2022


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Elon Musk Introduces ‘Live Tweeting’ Feature Amid Ongoing Plans for Twitter

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Twitter CEO Elon Musk, on Saturday, added a new feature ‘live tweeting’ and now it is currently active on the platform.

Author Matt Taibbi becomes the first user to use this new feature with his cryptic tweet “Thread: THE TWITTER FILES”

Taking to Twitter, Musk wrote, “Here we go!!” with popcorn emoticons.

Earlier, he tweeted, “We’re double-checking some facts, so probably start live tweeting in about 40 mins.”

We’re double-checking some facts, so probably start live tweeting in about 40 mins

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 2, 2022

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Griftopia writer followed his first tweet which reads, “Thread: THE TWITTER FILES”, “What you’re about to read is the first installment in a series, based upon thousands of internal documents obtained by sources at Twitter.”

He added, “The “Twitter Files” tell an incredible story from inside one of the world’s largest and most influential social media platforms. It is a Frankensteinian tale of a human-built mechanism grown out the control of its designer.”

Twitter’s new boss is also working on “purging a lot” of spam/scam accounts.

On Thursday, Musk took to his Twitter account and shared the word limit update with everyone. He tweeted, “Twitter is purging a lot of spam/scam accounts right now, so you may see your follower count drop.”

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

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Musk is also planning to up Twitter’s character limit from 280 to 1000.

A few days ago, a social media user tagged Musk and tweeted, ” Idea on explanding character limit to 1000.”

In response, Musk wrote, “It’s on the todo list.”

The character limit has been one of the prime differences between Twitter and other social media services.Musk has shown interest in the idea of increasing the character limit on a number of occasions since his takeover of the platform, as per a report by Mashable. On November 27, a Twitter user suggested to Musk to increase the platform’s word limit from 280 to 420.

“Good idea” Musk wrote in response. Prior to that, another user had suggested “get rid of character limits.”

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“Absolutely”, the multi-billionaire responded.

Now it remains to be seen when Musk finally makes the changes regarding character limit.


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WhatsApp Begins Beta Testing Android Tablet Support, iOS Testers Get ‘Search by Date’ Feature

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WhatsApp is rolling out an update for its beta testers on Android that introduces support for WhatsApp for tablets. Select Android beta testers can now link their existing WhatsApp account on their phones with the tablet version of the app. Until now, a WhatsApp account on an Android phone could not be accessed on a secondary Android device. Meanwhile, some beta testers on WhatsApp for iOS are reportedly getting access to a new feature that will allow them to quickly jump to messages based on the date they were sent or received.

Spotted by WhatsApp feature tracker WABetaInfo, users who have signed up for WhatsApp’s beta programme will begin to see an in-app banner announcing the feature. A screengrab on the website shows a banner on top of chats which reads “Have an Android tablet? WhatsApp for tablet is available for beta testers.’ The banner will be visible as part of WhatsApp beta 2.22.25.8 update for Android, which makes the popular messaging app compatible on tablets. Gadgets 360 staff members who are part of the beta programme also received the banner on their smartphones.

However, the feature tracker states that the new tablet version of the app might not be feature-complete. “Note that some features may still not be available when installing WhatsApp on your tablet, for example, the ability to share a new status update, live locations, and broadcast lists,” the report said.

Notably, WhatsApp users can access their primary account on computer and WhatsApp for Web. The feature is finally coming to Android tablets, allowing beta testers to access their messages on both their smartphone and their tablet.

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Meanwhile, WABetaInfo also reports that beta testers on iOS are getting a new update that adds the ability to search for messages by date. WhatsApp version 22.24.0.77, via the TestFlight beta programme, will make it easier for users to jump to specific dates in a chat window. To check if the feature is available, users can look for a calendar icon inside the search option for a chat. The icon lets you use the ‘Jump to Date’ feature to look for specific messages sent on the day.

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WhatsApp has been busy in the past few weeks, rolling out multiple features on both Android and iOS. The app recently rolled out a ‘Message Yourself’ feature on both platforms that lets users text themselves, in case they need to note down important information, reminders, or store files. Additionally, iOS users also received an update that adds the ability to include captions for forwarded media.


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