Lazy Caturday Reads: The Twitter Meltdown, Polls, and the Midterms

Leonid Kiparisov, ‘On a Good Footing’

Leonid Kiparisov, ‘On a Good Footing’

Happy Caturday!!

At least we can celebrate cats and cat art, even though things in the real world are so f’d up. The top story today should be the upcoming midterm elections, and it is; but not in the way it normally would be. Right now we are dealing with a very strange situation in which a social media meltdown is likely to turn the process we’ve become accustomed to completely upside down. There’s really no way to know how it will all shake out, but it’s not looking good. It’s as if Trump himself took over Twitter in order to stoke chaos in the upcoming elections. In addition to the Twitter madness, the polls, which have been less accurate over the past several years, are seemingly more problematic than ever.

Here’s the latest on the Twitter mess. It’s a deep dive on the layoffs and how they could affect the user experience as well as the ability of experts, journalists, and regular people to follow the election results. Ben Collins, Bandy Zadrozny, and David Ingram at NBC News: Days before the midterms, Twitter lays off employees who fight misinformation.

Mass layoffs at Twitter on Friday battered the teams primarily responsible for keeping the platform free of misinformation, potentially hobbling the company’s capabilities four days before the end of voting in Tuesday’s midterm elections, one current and six former Twitter employees familiar with the cuts told NBC News,five of whom had been recently laid off.

Two former Twitter employees and one current employee warned the layoffs could bring chaos around the elections, as they hit especially hard on teams responsible for the curation of trending topics and for the engineering side of “user health,” which works on content moderation and site integrity. The seven people asked to withhold their names out of worry over professional retribution and because they weren’t authorized to speak for the company.

CEO Elon Musk, who’s facing sizable future debt payments and declining revenue at Twitter, said the cuts were needed to ensure the health of the company’s long-term finances a week after he bought it for $44 billion.

The cuts appeared to affect many people whose jobs were to keep Twitter from becoming overwhelmed by prohibited content, such as hateful conduct and targeted harassment, the seven sources said….

Gita Johar, a Columbia University business professor who has studied misinformation on Twitter, said the job cuts risk turning the site into a “free-for-all with rumors, conspiracy theories and falsehoods taking hold on the platform and in people’s imagination.”

Twitter had not released public figures about which teams had been cut the most, but the layoffs were widespread. In an exchange at an investor conference Friday, Musk appeared to confirm that his team had laid off half the company’s workforce, according to CNBC.

“Elon will own a company without employees,” a source inside Twitter told CNBC.

Françoise Collandre

Painting by Françoise Collandre

Musk and his hand-picked spokespeople claim there won’t be any problems; but if you use Twitter regularly, you know that isn’t true.

Twitter’s curation team, which had a variety of roles across the platform, including coordinating the detection and publishing of moments meant to debunk misinformation, appears to be gone, one source said. The team had recently published an explainer about how it tried to keep information accurate and impartial.

Andrew Haigh, a London-based curation lead, said on Twitter that the team “is no more.” 

“Unfortunately, the platform’s history of transparency and supporting research may be just that: history,” said Kate Starbird, a professor of design and engineering at the University of Washington who studies misinformation.

Starbird said it remained to be seen how potential misinformation around the midterms might be affected.

“We were already expecting a surge in rumors and disinformation around the election, even before Musk taking the reins,” she said.

“But the mass layoffs mean that we’ll get to see what an unmoderated major platform truly looks like in 2022, in an era of algorithmic manipulation and networked toxicity, during a massive online convergence event with huge political stakes.”

Read the rest at NBC News if you’re interested in the effects of misinformation and disinformation.

The Verge: Elon Musk’s Twitter layoffs leave whole teams gutted

Elon Musk has now purged roughly half of Twitter’s 7,500 employee base, leaving whole teams totally or near completely gutted, including those tasked with defending against election misinformation ahead of the US midterms next week, The Verge has learned.

The areas of Twitter impacted the most by Musk’s cuts include its product trust and safety, policy, communications, tweet curation, ethical AI, data science, research, machine learning, social good, accessibility, and even certain core engineering teams, according to tweets by laid-off employees and people familiar with the matter. More company leaders, including Arnaud Weber, VP of consumer product engineering, and Tony Haile, a senior director of product overseeing Twitter’s work with news publishers, have also been laid off following Musk’s firings of Twitter’s senior leadership last week.

Given the sweeping nature of Musk’s layoffs and his mandate to cut costs in areas like cloud hosting, employees who remain at Twitter told The Verge that they expect the company to have a hard time maintaining critical infrastructure in the short term. “Shit is gonna start breaking,” said one current employee who requested anonymity to speak without the company’s permission, while another called management’s layoff process “an absolute shit show.”

The rest of the article discusses Musk’s disgusting treatment of employees and upcoming lawsuits by those who have been purged.

The Washington Post: Twitter layoffs gutted election information teams days before midterms.

Devastating cuts to Twitter’s workforce on Friday, four days before the midterm elections, are fueling anxieties among political campaigns and election offices that have counted on the social network’s staff to help them combat violent threats and viral lies.

Slim woman with a cat, geza farago

Slim woman with a cat, Geza Farago

The mass layoffs Friday gutted teams devoted to combating election misinformation, adding context to misleading tweets and communicating with journalists, public officials and campaign staff.

The layoffs included a number of people who were scheduled to be on call this weekend and early next week to monitor for signs of foreign disinformation, spam and other problematic content around the election, one former employee told The Washington Post. As of Friday morning, employee access to internal tools used for content moderation continued to be restricted, limiting staff’s ability to respond to misinformation.

Twitter had become one of America’s most influential platforms for spreading accurate voting information, and the days before elections have often been critical moments where company and campaign officials kept up a near-constant dialogue about potential risks.

But a representative from one of the national party committees said they are seeing hours-long delays in responses from their contacts at Twitter, raising fears of the toll workplace chaos and sudden terminations is taking on the platform’s ability to quickly react to developments. The representative spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

It’s “only” a social media company, but Twitter has become a vital source of information for people in every walk of life. This is going to be a disaster.

Some researchers tracking online threats said they also feared that the cuts would interrupt lines of communication between the company and police that have been used to identify people threatening voter intimidation or offline violence.

“Law enforcement may lose precious minutes in identifying that person who we think is posing an actual threat,” said Katherine Keneally, a senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies political extremism and polarization.

Keneally said she’d already seen an uptick in threatening content related to the election. She pointed to one post where a user wrote of the need to “pour in bleach or gasoline” at ballot drop boxes, a target of right-wing conspiracy theories about systematic voter fraud.

President Biden on Friday criticized Twitter’s role in spreading false information.

“Elon Musk goes out and buys an outfit that spews lies all across the world,” he said while attending a political fundraiser in Chicago. “There’s no editors anymore in America.”

The loss of Twitter as we knew it also has consequences for individuals. Here’s an example from a Washington Post writer:

Read the replies on Twitter. The sentiment is widespread.

Here’s another example:

From Vice yesterday, an example of how the lack of moderation is negatively affecting Twitter: Twitter Recommends Ye as Top Follow on ‘The Jews’ as Company Does Mass Layoffs.

“The Jews” is trending on Twitter, and its algorithm has selected Ye as a “Top” person to follow while Elon Musk fires roughly half of the company’s staff, including many of its policy experts and content moderators.

Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, recently had his Twitter access limited after saying he would go “death con 3” on “JEWISH PEOPLE,” and has been dropped by the vast majority of his business partners after repeatedly making blatantly antisemitic comments over the last few weeks. The freeze on Ye’s account has since been lifted.

“#IStandWithKyrie” is also trending, a reference to Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, who recently recommended that people watch an antisemitic documentary and was suspended for five games after declining to apologize and evasively answering a question on whether he holds “anti-semitic beliefs.”

Twitter’s content moderation has always been something of a disaster, and harmful things end up trending all the time. Twitter’s content moderation has always relied more heavily on algorithms than competitors like Facebook do. In any case, Musk has promised to protect the values of “freedom of speech”—with the company now running with thousands fewer employees after mass layoffs. This may well be a window into what that looks like.

Girl with Kitten - Olesya Serzhantova Russian painter

Girl with Kitten – Olesya Serzhantova Russian painter

Twitter is also losing advertisers, which obviously could impact the long-term health of the company. The New York Times: Twitter’s Advertisers Pull Back as Layoffs Sweep Through Company.

The pullback of advertisers from Twitter gathered steam on Friday amid growing fear that misinformation and hate speech would be allowed to proliferate on the platform under Elon Musk’s leadership.

The Volkswagen Group joined several other companies in recommending that its automotive brands, which include Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley and Porsche, pause their spending on Twitter out of concerns that their ads could appear alongside problematic content. The Danish brewing company Carlsberg Group also said it had advised its marketing teams to do the same. The outdoor equipment and apparel retailer REI said it would pause posts in addition to advertising spending “given the uncertain future of Twitter’s ability to moderate harmful content and guarantee brand safety for advertisers.” And a spokeswoman for United Airlines, Leslie Scott, confirmed that the carrier had suspended advertising on Twitter earlier this week.

Civil rights groups including GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League held a conference call on Friday urging other companies to abandon Twitter, saying that mass layoffs there were gutting what they described as an already anemic content moderation staff.

Even Mr. Musk acknowledged the advertising slump, tweeting on Friday morning that Twitter “has had a massive drop in revenue,” which he blamed on activist groups pressuring advertisers.

The first chaotic week of Mr. Musk’s ownership of Twitter has given Madison Avenue whiplash, as advertisers struggle to reconcile the billionaire’s promises to make the platform safe for brands with concerns about a surge of extremism and false narratives, including one promoted by Mr. Musk himself.

In his tweet about Twitter’s faltering revenue, Mr. Musk said that “nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists” — a claim that civil rights groups denied.

A minute before he posted his comment, the ad-tracking platform MediaRadar released statistics showing that the number of advertisers on Twitter had dropped from May, soon after Mr. Musk’s bid for the platform was announced, through September, when he was still fighting to get out of the deal he struck to buy Twitter in April.

MediaRadar, which tracks ad campaigns for millions of companies, said data for October, when Mr. Musk took over Twitter, would not be available until later this month.

More details at the link.

Menny Fox, InstagramAnd what about the polls? New York Times polling expert Nate Cohn discusses the situation: Polling Averages Can Be Useful, but What’s Underneath Has Changed. This year, a wave of polls from Republican-leaning firms is driving the averages.

The polls show Republicans gaining heading into the final stretch. They’ve pulled ahead on the generic ballot in the race for the House, and they’ve fought into a closely contested race for Senate control….

On average, Republicans lead by two points on the generic ballot — which asks voters whether they’ll vote for the Democrat or Republican for Congress — and have pulled into very tight Senate races in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada, where Democrats were once thought to have the advantage.

This simple poll average is like many others you might have seen over the years. It weights the most recent polls more heavily. It gives more weight to pollsters that belong to a professional polling organization (they tend to be far less biased over the longer term). It doesn’t contain some of the fancier bells and whistles, like an adjustment for whether a poll tends to lean toward Republicans or Democrats.

But in one important respect, this average is very different from polling averages you’ve seen in prior years: The pollsters making up the average are very different.

Many stalwarts of political polling over the last decade — Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University, ABC/Washington Post, CNN/SSRS, Fox News, New York Times/Siena College, Marist College — have conducted far fewer surveys, especially in the battleground states, than they have in recent years. In some cases, these pollsters have conducted no recent polls at all.

And on the flip side, there has been a wave of polls by firms like the Trafalgar Group, Rasmussen Reports, Insider Advantage and others that have tended to produce much more Republican-friendly results than the traditional pollsters. None adhere to industry standards for transparency or data collection. In some states, nearly all of the recent polls were conducted by Republican-leaning firms.

This creates a big challenge for a simple polling average like this one. From state to state, Democrats or Republicans might seem to be doing much better or much worse, simply depending on which kind of pollster has conducted a survey most recently. The race may seem to swing back and forth, from week to week.

This is a subscriber only article, but I sent a gift link to Twitter and I’m posting it here for anyone who wants to read the rest and see charts.

I’m going to end there. As for how things are going in the many important races around the country, I have decided to kind of ignore the news about those. I can’t trust the polls, and I will only end up anxious and depressed if I read too much about what’s happening in the various states. I’m worried, but I figure all I can do is wait and see what happens and then deal with the results.

Please post your thoughts and share links on any topic in the comment thread, and I wish you a nice, peaceful weekend.