Twitter owner Elon Musk’s dictatorial management style risks driving the company headlong into unforced business blunders, content moderation disasters and the degradation of core platform features that help keep vulnerable users safe, according to a former top Twitter official who led the company’s content moderation before abruptly resigning this month.
The social media company’s botched rollout of a paid verification feature “is an example of a disaster that slipped through” amid the chaos Musk brought to Twitter, and the prospect of further disasters made it impossible to stay, said Yoel Roth, the company’s former head of site integrity, during an onstage interview with the journalist Kara Swisher Tuesday in his first public appearance since quitting Twitter on Nov. 10.
Roth and other colleagues tried to warn Musk of the “obvious” problems in his plan to offer a verified check mark to any user who paid $8 a month. But Musk charged ahead anyway through sheer force of will, leading to a wave of new impostor accounts posing as major brands, athletes and other verified users that soon forced Twitter to suspend the feature.
“It went off the rails in exactly the ways that we anticipated,” Roth said.
The public reflections of a senior Twitter leader who had close contact with Musk in the raw, early days of his ownership of the company — a period marked by internal tumult and a damaging advertiser revolt — provide the latest evidence of a billionaire CEO who leads by his gut at the expense of virtually everyone else.
There was no explosive confrontation with Musk that led to Roth’s resignation, and the episode involving Twitter’s paid verification feature was only one of many factors that drove Roth’s decision to leave, he said. But the experience exemplified the kind of damage Musk’s freewheeling approach can do, Roth added, likening his final weeks at the company to standing before a leaky dam, trying desperately to plug the holes but knowing that eventually something would get past him.
In the hour-long interview, Roth warned Musk’s laissez-faire approach to content moderation, and his lack of a transparent process for making and enforcing platform policies, has made Twitter less safe, in part because there aren’t enough staff remaining who understand that malicious actors are constantly trying to game the system in ways that automated algorithms don’t know how to catch.
“People are not sitting still,” he said. “They are actively devising new ways to be horrible on the internet.”
He urged Twitter users to monitor the functioning of key safety features such as muting, blocking and protected tweets as early warning signs the platform may be breaking down.
“If protected tweets stop working, run,” he said.
For two weeks after Musk closed his purchase of Twitter, Roth presented himself as a voice of stability and calm at the center of a company undergoing dramatic change. Roth knew that by remaining at the company, Musk was using him to help keep advertisers from abandoning the platform. But Roth also suggested that he and others who did not leave Twitter may have been able to influence Musk and keep him from making damaging unilateral decisions, which he had “multiple opportunities” to do.
Even as he spent his initial days in the new regime battling a “surge in hateful conduct on Twitter” apparently meant to test Musk’s tolerance for racism and antisemitism on the platform, Roth sought to reassure the public that Twitter’s trust and safety work continued unhindered.
He shared data on the platform’s ongoing enforcement efforts, and downplayed the impact of Twitter’s mass layoffs on its content moderation team, saying the job cuts were less severe in that department compared to the wider organization.
As late as Nov. 9, Roth spoke alongside Musk during a public Twitter Spaces event intended to persuade advertisers not to flee the platform. In the hour-long session, which was attended by more than 100,000 listeners, including representatives of Adidas, Chevron and other major brands, Roth waxed optimistic about Twitter’s plans to fight hate speech.
The very next day, Roth abruptly resigned, joining a slew of other senior executives including Twitter’s chief privacy officer and chief information security officer.
In a subsequent New York Times op-ed, Roth said his reason for leaving came down to Musk’s highly personal and…