Twitter began widespread layoffs Friday as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the company, raising grave concerns about chaos enveloping the platform and its ability to fight disinformation just days ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.
The speed and size of the cuts also opened Musk and Twitter to lawsuits. At least one was filed Thursday in San Francisco alleging Twitter has violated federal law by not providing fired employees the required notice.
The company had told workers by email that they would find out Friday if they had been laid off. It did not say how many of the roughly 7,500 employees would lose their jobs.
Musk blames activists for drop in advertising
Musk didn't 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 activists who urged big companies to halt advertising on the platform. Musk hasn't commented on the layoffs themselves.
"The activist groups have been successful in causing a massive drop in Twitter advertising revenue, and we've done our absolute best to appease them and nothing is working," he said.
No other social media platform comes close to Twitter as a place where public agencies and other vital service providers — election boards, police departments, utilities, schools and news outlets — keep people reliably informed. Many fear Musk's layoffs will gut it and render it lawless.
Several employees who tweeted about losing their jobs said Twitter also eliminated their entire teams, including one focused on human rights and global conflicts, another that checks Twitter's algorithms for bias in how tweets get amplified, and an engineering team devoted to making the social platform more accessible for people with disabilities.
Fear that disinformation spreads 'like wildfire'
Eddie Perez, a Twitter civic integrity team manager who quit in September, said he fears the layoffs so close to the midterms could allow disinformation to "spread like wildfire" during the post-election vote-counting period in particular.
"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 that there simply may not be enough employees to beat it back.
Perez, a board member at the nonpartisan election integrity nonprofit OSET Institute, said the post-election period is particularly perilous because "some candidates may not concede and some may allege election irregularities, and that is likely to generate a new cycle of falsehoods."
Workers laid off worldwide
Twitter's employees have been expecting layoffs since Musk took the helm. He fired top executives, including CEO Parag Agrawal, and removed the company's board of directors on his first day as owner.
As the emailed notices went out, many Twitter employees took to the platform to express support for each other — often simply tweeting blue heart emojis to signify its blue bird logo — and salute emojis in replies to each other.
The sweeping layoffs will jeopardize content moderation standards, according to a coalition of civil rights groups that escalated their calls Friday for brands to pause advertising buys on the platform. The layoffs are particularly dangerous ahead of the elections, the groups warned, and for transgender users and other groups facing violence inspired by hate speech that proliferates online.
Leaders with the organizations Free Press and Color of Change said they spoke with Musk on Tuesday, and he promised to retain and enforce election integrity measures already in place. But the mass layoffs suggest otherwise, according to Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of Free Press.
"When you lay off reportedly 50% of your staff — including teams who are in charge of actually tracking, monitoring and enforcing content moderation and rules — that necessarily means that content moderation has changed," Gonzalez said.
The layoffs affected Twitter's offices around the world. In the United Kingdom, Twitter would be required by law to give employees notice, said Emma Bartlett, a partner specializing in employment and partnership law at CM Murray LLP.
In the case of mass firings, failure to notify the government could "have criminal penalties associated with it,'' Bartlett said, adding that whether criminal sanctions are ever applied is another question.
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 color 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 don't unfairly discriminate or bring unwanted attention to the company.
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.
In a tweet Friday, Musk blamed activists for what he described as a "massive drop in revenue" since he took over Twitter late last week. He did not say how much revenue had dropped.
Big companies including General Motors, REI, General Mills and Audi have all paused ads on Twitter because of questions about how it will operate under Musk. Volkswagen Group said it is recommending its brands, which include Audi, Lamborghini and Porsche, pause paid activities until Twitter issues revised brand safety guidelines.
Musk last week sought to convince advertisers that Twitter wouldn't become a "free-for-all hellscape," but many remain concerned about whether content moderation will remain as stringent and whether staying on Twitter might tarnish their brands.
In his tweet, Musk said "nothing has changed with content moderation."
But Twitter advertisers have steadily declined since Musk agreed to buy Twitter in April, according to MediaRadar, which tracks ad buys. Between January and April, the average number of advertisers on Twitter was 3,350. From May through September, the number dropped to 3,100. Prior to July, more than 1,000 new advertisers were spending on Twitter every month. In July and August, that number dropped to roughly 200.