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If Twitter gets (more) toxic, big-name tweeters can threaten to take millions of users

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS)

Elon Musk’s mass layoffs at Twitter on Friday, barely a week after he acquired the company, should serve as an all-but-literal announcement: Whatever assurances he offers to the contrary, he may in fact plan to open the content floodgates to the worst in hate speech and toxic disinformation. Why else would the layoffs include gutting the very personnel whose jobs were to weed out the worst offenders?

A pause by major advertisers is a good first shot across Musk’s bow on this issue. An even better one would be if top users like Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey threatened to leave with their many millions of followers unless Musk behaves responsibly with this influential platform.

The world’s richest person has approached his purchase and initial management of Twitter with typical chaos. Musk offered, then attempted to withdraw, a wildly overpriced bid of $44 billion, before the threat of litigation forced him to go through with the deal. Long a critic of Twitter’s moderation policies, he has tried to assure civil rights organizations he would continue responsibly moderating content. Yet the company itself acknowledged that his purchase spawned a surge in hateful posts from right-wing swamp-dwellers testing the new boundaries.

A Twitter headquarters sign is shown in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. Employees were bracing for widespread layoffs at Twitter on Friday, as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the social platform. Musk laid off almost 3,700 employees last week — close to half the payroll — in a desperate attempt to cut costs at a company that currently loses an astonishing $4 million a day.

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Then Musk laid off almost 3,700 employees last week — close to half the payroll — in a desperate attempt to cut costs at a company that currently loses an astonishing $4 million a day. The layoffs included such crucial positions as content moderators, who are responsible for identifying tweets that should be yanked for falsity or threats of violence. Some of those employees were specifically tasked with ensuring that political misinformation isn’t being spread in advance of Tuesday’s midterms. (Days later, Musk asked dozens of the laid-off employees back, though initial reporting indicates that was largely about implementing some of his future plans for the platform, not content moderation.)

Musk also recently raised the possibility of charging $20 per month per user for verified “blue check” accounts. Facing pushback, the company later said the price would rise to only $7.99, and not immediately.

Author Stephen King’s sarcastic retort (“they should pay me”) is arguably accurate — and not just regarding the verified accounts.

Twitter’s advertising appeal and its social and political relevance exist only because of its more than 300 million users worldwide, many of whom are there to follow favored celebrities. Top-tweeter Obama and other commenters of conscience have the power to topple Twitter’s business model overnight if they choose to migrate to another site. Now, and not after Musk does whatever more damage he might do, is the time for big-name users to warn him that that’s a real possibility if he abdicates the societal responsibility he took on with this expensive new toy of his.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS).