Elon Musk’s Twitter Moderation Team Layoff Decision Helped Lead to Brazilian Insurrection

Connections are being made between Elon Musk’s decision to issue layoff notices to Twitter’s moderation team and the Brazilian insurrection.

Elon Musk’s legendary poor business decision making is continuing to build. Last week, Musk’s decision to just stop paying the bills has formally been met with legal action for failing to pay rent for one of its office buildings. So, that decision to save money is ultimately going to cost much more than simply continuing to pay the rent. It’s really a predictable result that only Musk might not see coming.

Of course, Musk isn’t done with making absolutely terrible business decisions. Reports surfaced that Musk decided to issue more layoffs. You know, what use would a free speech platform have with moderators? From Engadget:

The outlet reports that Twitter also cut workers responsible for handling the company’s misinformation policy, in addition to a handful of employees involved with the platform’s global appeals process and state media program.

The move would suggest that Musk learned nothing from past mistakes. Earlier mistakes led to advertisers heading for the exits because they feared that their ads would appear next to misinformation and hate speech. Musk’s decisions have seemingly only exacerbated hate speech and misinformation. As a result, advertisers are seeing the platform as increasingly not brand safe. So, you’d think that the object lesson is to not make more staffing cuts in that area. Musk, however, has decided that more cuts are necessary.

Staffing cut decisions both last year and recently may have had an even bigger impact than just Twitter becoming increasingly chaotic and unusable nature of Twitter. In a scene that many American’s might be reminded of the January 6th terrorist attack on the US Capitol, far right supporters in Brazil launched a similar attack on various key buildings in their country. From the CBC:

Supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who refuse to accept his electoral defeat stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace in the capital on Sunday, just a week after the inauguration of his leftist rival, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Thousands of demonstrators bypassed security barricades, climbed on roofs, smashed windows and invaded all three buildings, which were believed to be largely vacant on the weekend. Some of the demonstrators called for a military intervention to either restore the far-right Bolsonaro to power or oust Lula from the presidency.

Hours went by before control of the buildings on Brasilia’s vast Three Powers Square was reestablished, with hundreds of the participants arrested.

In a news conference from Sao Paulo state, Lula accused Bolsonaro of encouraging the uprising by those he termed “fascist fanatics,” and he read a freshly signed decree for the federal government to take control of security in the federal district.

“There is no precedent for what they did and these people need to be punished,” Lula said.

TV channel Globo News showed protesters wearing the green and yellow colours of the national flag that also have come to symbolize the nation’s conservative movement and were adopted by Bolsonaro’s supporters.

The two stories, at first blush, seem to be completely separate and not really related, however, there is growing consensus that the two stories actually do have links. Information has been coming out saying that thanks to Musk fomenting right wing movements on Twitter, the organization of the people storming Brazil’s political infrastructure was thanks, in part, to Twitter’s increasingly lax moderation. From Rolling Stone:

On Sunday, Brazilian supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the presidential palace, the country’s seat of Congress, and various other federal buildings. The scenes, which echoed the Jan. 6 riot in the United States Capitol almost exactly two years ago, shared a similar motivation: claims of a stolen election. 

Following the completion of the purchase, Musk fired huge swaths of both Twitter’s domestic and international staff — including, as reported by The Washington Post, the majority of the company’s Brazilian employees. According to the Post, any and all employees charged with moderating content for incitement of violence and misinformation had been fired by early November, leaving behind only a handful of salespeople. The takeover has since coincided with an engagement boom for Brazilian right-wing accounts on the platform.

Bolsonaro has long been a fan of Musk. In May of last year, he appeared next to Musk at a meeting touting a partnership between Brazil’s government and Starlink, calling the Tesla founder’s potential takeover of Twitter “breath of hope” from a “legend of freedom.” Throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro had raised the specter of election fraud, relying heavily on unfounded claims that voting machines could be rigged or tampered with, and that election officials were able to manipulate vote tallies at will. His October defeat prompted a spike in narratives of election fraud and calls for a coup against Lula on Twitter and across other social media platforms, according to an analysis by DFRLab.

So, there are those who are saying that Twitter has been instrumental in organizing this latest attack. While it may not be the only platform, Twitter is certainly now being cited as one platform that contributed to the attack.

Fuelling right wing terror attacks may be only one problem Twitter is now, at best, struggling to deal with. It appears that Twitter is now also failing to stop CSAM content as well. From TechDirt:

But perhaps more serious is the issue of child sexual abuse material. There has been this weird narrative making the rounds that Twitter, under the previous regime, did not take the issue seriously. And that since Elon took over, it has done much more to stop CSAM. Both parts of this narrative appear to be false.

Experts who used to work with Twitter specifically on this issue say that the teams working on it have been mostly fired, as Elon insists that automation will somehow work in their place (note: automation is important in finding repeat content that has been added to various databases, but… not good at all at catching new content). It does not sound like things are going well.

The ex-employee outlined to CNA how automated machine-learning models often struggle to catch up with the evolving modus operandi of perpetrators of child sexual abuse material.

Trading such content on Twitter involves treading a fine line between being obvious enough to prospective “buyers” yet subtle enough to avoid detection.

In practice, this means speaking in codewords that are ever-changing, to try and evade enforcement. 

And so abusers are able to stay ahead of Twitter’s efforts:

With fewer content moderators and domain specialists in Twitter to keep track of such changes, there’s a danger that abusers will take the opportunity to coordinate yet another new set of codewords that automated systems and a smaller team cannot quickly pick up, said the ex-employee.

CSAM is a massive issue across any social media platform. There is no “solution” to it that will stop it from happening, but it’s an ever evolving challenge that many companies work on, using ever changing approaches to deal with the fact that the perpetrators are constantly adapting as well. Twitter used to be one of the leading companies in responding to this challenge, but now it appears that the opposite is true.

All this is over top of the massive spike in hate speech on the platform. From CNN:

New Twitter owner Elon Musk declared last month that “hate speech impressions” had dramatically fallen on the platform since he took over.

It was a remarkable claim, given that Musk has executed mass layoffs and chased away hundreds of employees, draining the company of much-needed resources to enforce content moderation policies, which the billionaire has also publicly criticized.

On Friday, two watchdog groups published research that indicated Musk’s claim simply did not hold water, offering one of the clearest pictures to date of the surging tide of hate speech on the platform.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Defamation League both said in reports that the volume of hate speech on Twitter has grown dramatically under Musk’s stewardship.

Specifically, the Center for Countering Digital Hate said the daily use of the n-word under Musk is triple the 2022 average and the use of slurs against gay men and trans persons are up 58% and 62%, respectively.

And the Anti-Defamation League said in a separate report that its data shows “both an increase in antisemitic content on the platform and a decrease in the moderation of antisemitic posts.”

Both groups expressed alarm with what they are seeing occur on Twitter, one of the most influential communications platforms in the world. The Anti-Defamation League described the deteriorating state-of-affairs as a “troubling situation” that “will likely get worse, given the reported cuts to Twitter’s content moderation staff.”

So, the situation on Twitter is clearly continuing to deteriorate. We have already seen the negative impacts of past decisions. With Musk seemingly more interested in making more staffing cuts, the problems will no doubt continue to grow on the platform, making alternatives even more attractive by the day.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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