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Friday, April 19, 2024

Twitter’s Ex-Election Chief Is Worried About the US Midterms

The aftermath of the last major election cycle in the United States played out like a car crash on Twitter. In late 2020 and January 2021, as Donald Trump riled up his supporters through his Twitter account after roundly losing the presidential election, the social media company felt paralyzed about how to act. It was only after Trump used his Twitter account to direct a mob to storm the US Capitol, seemingly with the aim of taking enemy politicians hostage, that the platform decided to move.

Twitter banned Trump on January 8, 2021—seemingly permanently. As of yet, Elon Musk, since last week CEO of Twitter, has said that Trump won’t return. The mercurial entrepreneur has also said that no account previously banned for breaching Twitter’s rules will be reinstated “for at least a few more weeks.” Yet even if the platform’s most controversial political figure isn’t going to be able to spread hate during the midterms, as the US goes to the polls on November 8, there’s still plenty to worry about.

Until September, Edward Perez was director of product management at Twitter, overseeing the product team devoted to civic integrity. Joining the company in September 2021, after more than three decades working in election integrity, Perez’s role was to keep Twitter safe during times of great upheaval—such as elections—from a product perspective. And as Musk guts Twitter of its staff and allows users to pay to get a coveted blue check on the platform, Perez feels he has to speak out.

“I really am concerned that it feels like the drama around corporate takeover is sucking up all the oxygen in the room,” says Perez, who is now a board member at the OSET Institute, a nonpartisan group devoted to election security and integrity. That focus on the Musk psychodrama “is resulting in potentially inadequate attention on these election-related issues,” he adds.

“If one were seeking to wreck the civic integrity of Twitter and diminish its role in the public sphere, you would take all of the actions that Musk is currently taking,” says Steven Buckley, a lecturer in media and communications specializing in US politics and social media at City University, London. “The firing of content moderators and the pay-for-verification plans, combined with Musk’s churlish, childlike tweeting, simply diminishes what prestige Twitter has as a public forum.”

For Perez, the matter at hand isn’t simply the job losses that have decimated his former coworkers, nor the ability for people to say what they want on Twitter. It’s about upholding and protecting democracy. “It’s not entirely clear to me—particularly in the political context—that Elon Musk fully understands the degree of social responsibility that rests on his shoulders, and the very real harm, political harm, political violence, and division that can come from social media platforms.”

It’s incredible to Perez that Musk has taken the decision to slash headcount at Twitter by half just days before the US midterm elections, potentially leaving the platform open to manipulation. “I have a hard time imagining that it will not have a material impact, because you just cannot do that very, very complex work without having enough people,” he says.

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The staff shortages worry those monitoring the elections too. “I spoke to Elon Musk,” Jessica González, co-CEO of US media advocacy group Free Press, said at a press conference on Friday. “He promised to retain and enforce the election integrity measures that were on Twitter's books before his takeover. With today's mass layoffs, it's clear that Musk's actions betray his words."

González said that Free Press had been pressing Twitter since the summer to fully enforce its election integrity plan—and that showing staff the door undermines that plan. (Twitter did not respond immediately to a request for comment; Musk did not respond immediately to an email.)

Even small actions like preventing staff members from accessing physical offices on Friday as Musk and his coterie of advisers carried out their layoffs can have a significant impact, Perez says. “This is an utterly chaotic environment a few days away from an election to allow these very talented, very thoughtful, very dedicated people to do this important work,” he says.

Never mind getting the mind-space to do their work amid a maelstrom, there’s also the simple issue of whether there are enough staff there to handle what the election may bring.

One former Twitter employee, who asked for anonymity to speak freely, tells WIRED that the company prepared for the election months in advance. “This close to the vote, the materials are there,” they say. “It’s whether anyone left knows how to or wants to deploy it.” Perez points out that Twitter was well prepared with institutional structures and threat models to assess election risk. “But it would be a mistake to simply assume in the midst of these layoffs, and that amount of change, that the work can continue as it has before.”

Perez asks whether there are enough people with institutional expertise to analyze what Twitter’s machine-learning models that monitor speech on the platform are detecting; whether the models will still work to identify harmful keywords; and if the models will still surface questionable content for human moderators to review. “I don't know the answer to all of that,” he admits. “But it certainly doesn't look good when you're cutting 50 percent of very talented employees.”

Speaking on Friday afternoon, Perez didn’t know how many people in Twitter’s election integrity team were still at their post. His product team was only one part of Twitter’s election organization. The civic integrity team in all, including product and engineering staff, alongside policy experts in different regions, was more than 100 strong. Likewise, he’s uncertain what impact Musk’s seeming total abandonment of Twitter’s curation team will have on how the election plays out.

“For all the talk of algorithms and automation, a lot of the good of Twitter was humans being experts in interests and the platform,” says the former Twitter employee. Buckley believes that Musk might feel a degree of separation from the issue of election integrity. “His actions won’t threaten democracy and civic decency directly,” he says, “but they certainly will allow those wishing to undermine these things to do so.”

Nor is it just November 8 that Twitter—and the world—has to worry about. Perez is concerned that even if the elections implausibly go off without a hitch on Twitter, there will be weeks, if not months, of disinformation-filled aftermath.

“We're likely to have some candidates that, without any evidence of facts, will allege irregularities in the election,” says Perez. “I think it's reasonable to assume there will probably be some candidates that refuse to concede the results, and we will almost certainly have false and baseless allegations about so-called problems with voting technology.”

The sum of that is what Perez calls “manufactured chaos”: coordinated attempts to sow chaos by partisan political actors, including seeding disinformation through social media like Twitter. We know it’s coming this week, and we know from past experience its potential impact. The question is whether Musk’s public square is prepared to handle it.

“It is a very, very challenging and complex problem to try to mitigate the harmful effects of all that disinformation,” says Perez. “And I cannot think of a worse time for Elon Musk to cut off Twitter's resources at the knees.”

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