Twitter disbands Trust and Safety Council, Yoel Roth flees home

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Twitter abruptly dissolved its Trust and Safety Council Monday night, the latest sign that Elon Musk is dissolving years of work and institutions created to make the social network safer and more civil.

Members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council received an email with the subject line “Thank you,” telling them that the council was no longer “the best structure” for bringing “external insight into our product and policy development work.”

The email resolution came less than an hour before council members were expected to meet with Twitter executives via Zoom to discuss the latest developments, according to people familiar with the matter, who are on condition of anonymity spoke to discuss the plans.

For years, dozens of civil rights activists, academics, and lawyers from around the world have volunteered their time to help improve security on the platform.

“We are grateful for your commitment, your advice and your cooperation over the past few years and wish you every success for the future,” the e-mail said, simply signed “Twitter”.

In less than two months, Musk has undone years of investment in trust and security at Twitter – laying off key sections of the workforce and reinstating previously suspended accounts. As the body unravels, Musk is solidifying his control over the future of content moderation at Twitter, with less input from outside experts.

The move only throws the company away “years of institutional memory that we brought on the council,” said one council member, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for harassment on the platform. “When you get outside experts and advocates to look at your services, you become smarter.”

The Trust and Safety Council disbanded after Musk himself proposed the creation of a Content Moderation Council, which would have weighed important content moderation decisions, but later appeared to change his mind about creating such a body.

Many members were already on the verge of resigning, said Larry Magid, chief executive officer of ConnectSafely, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that advises consumers about children’s Internet use.

“The breakup got us fired instead of quitting,” he said. “Elon doesn’t want criticism, and he really doesn’t want the kind of advice he would very likely get from a security advisory board, which would probably tell him that he would rehire some of the staff he fired and he would rehire some the rules he got rid of and take the company in a different direction than he takes.”

Tweet first founded the Trust and Safety Council in 2016, as social networks have come under scrutiny for their role in fueling hate, terrorism, child exploitation and other problematic content online. The Council brought together a wide spectrum of civil society groups, think tanks – and even some of Silicon Valley’s biggest critics. Twitter executives regularly updated the council on new products in development and policies.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for press freedom around the world, condemned the council’s dissolution. “Safety online can mean surviving offline,” the group’s president, Jodie Ginsburg, said in a statement. “Today’s decision to dissolve the Trust and Safety Council is a matter of grave concern, particularly as it comes alongside increasingly hostile remarks about journalists and the media by Twitter owner Elon Musk.”

“I don’t see the logic of doing this when a lot of these relationships have been hard fought,” said another member, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the council’s dissolution.

The Twitter attorney has long weighed security and freedom of expression. Then Musk called them out.

Twitter told Trust and Safety members that their “regional points of contact will remain the best point of contact to escalate concerns.” However, Twitter’s trust and security and policy teams have been gutted by recent layoffs, as well as the departure of employees following an ultimatum from Musk.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which was a member of the council, “will be watching how they restructure,” said Gavin Portnoy, the center’s vice president.

“For now, we will continue to encourage reporting to the CyberTipline and hope to continue to have a seat at the table to address child safety on Twitter,” he said.

Last week, three members of the Trust and Safety Council resigned, warning that “the safety and well-being of Twitter users is declining”.

Responding to replies to their tweet announcing their resignation, Musk wrote, “It is a crime that for years they have refused to take action against child exploitation!”

Jack Dorsey, the company’s former CEO, responded to Musk, calling the claim “false.” But Musk’s comment nonetheless sparked a wave of threats and harassment against the board members who left the council, as well as some who stayed.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that was a member of the council and has received funding from tech companies, said in a statement that it was “dismayed by the irresponsible actions of Twitter leadership in spreading misinformation about the council that… have endangered the members of the council and undermined any semblance of trust in the company.”

Musk’s treatment of the board mirrored a wave of attacks that swept a former top executive at the company over the weekend.

Yoel Roth, former head of trust and safety at Twitter, and his family were evicted from their home after Elon Musk’s tweets misrepresented Roth’s academic writing about sexual activity and children. The online mob also sent threats to people Roth had replied to on Twitter and forced some of Roth’s family and friends to delete their Twitter accounts, according to a person familiar with Roth’s situation, who said he was taking the condition of anonymity.

Musk’s supporters also directed harassment at professors reviewing Roth’s 2016 dissertation and at his graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania, the person said. The university did not respond to a request for comment.

As head of trust and safety at Twitter, Roth was involved in many of the platform’s decisions about which posts to remove and which accounts to ban. His communications with other Twitter officials have been made public in recent days as part of what Musk calls the Twitter files, a series of tweets by conservative journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss.

For years, Musk’s tweets to his tens of millions of followers have caused his supporters to inundate the targets of his ire with online threats – famously a participant in the rescue of a boys soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand whom Musk dubbed a “pedo”. Dude.” But now that Musk owns one of the most powerful social networks in the world and has gutted the division that previously monitored online harassment, the stakes are even higher.

Musk tweets about Roth were reminiscent of the QAnon conspiracy movement falsely claiming that Democratic Party leaders run a child sex abuse network.

“Looks like Yoel is arguing for his PhD thesis to allow kids to access adult internet services,” Musk tweeted Saturday, attaching a screenshot of Roth’s dissertation.

Elon Musk ramps up criticism of Twitter execs, leading to online attacks

In the text, Roth suggested that services like gay dating app Grindr should adopt safety strategies to accommodate teens using their platforms, rather than drive them out altogether. Musk also commented on a 2010 tweet in which Roth wrote, “Can high school students ever meaningfully consent to having sex with their teachers?” Roth then linked to an article detailing a Washington State Supreme Court ruling on when ​​Old students are allowed to have sex with their teachers.

Musk’s critical comments about Roth are something of a reversal from his early days at the company, when Roth appeared to be one of the few senior Twitter executives who supported Musk. On Oct. 30, the billionaire tweeted, “I want to make it clear that I support Yoel. I feel he has a high level of integrity and we are all entitled to our political beliefs.”

And Roth seemed measured in his comments about Twitter’s new owner, trying to reassure the public about the company’s efforts to fight hate and protect elections. He even appeared alongside Musk in a call meant to reassure advertisers.

Even after leaving Twitter in November, Roth has remained cautious in his criticism. He warned in a New York Times op-ed that there was “little need” for a trust and security function in a company where “policies are set by edict.” But he also said publicly that it wasn’t right to portray Musk as the “villain of the story” when he took over the company.

“I think one of the difficult things about Elon is that people really want him to be the villain of the story, and they want him to be clearly wrong and bad, and everything he says is double-dealing,” Roth said during an interview at the Knight Foundation conference. “I have to say… that wasn’t my experience with him.”

Musk’s “free speech” agenda is dismantling security work at Twitter, insiders say

Still, Roth is the most visible former Twitter executive to assess Musk’s actions, and his role in the company has been highlighted in the Twitter files.

Twitter employees have long been suspicious of Musk’s ability to stoke online criticism. Shortly after announcing his plans to acquire the company in April, he tweeted a meme featuring the face of Twitter’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, to his tens of millions of followers, which seemed to suggest that the company’s decisions were being made by a “left wing” bias.”

Twitter users quickly piled in, calling for Musk to fire Gadde or using racist language to describe her. Gadde was born in India and immigrated to the United States as a child. One user said she would “go down in history as a horrifying person”.

Such harassment is part of a years-long pattern for Musk, with few legal ramifications so far. Musk was ultimately found not liable in a defamation lawsuit after making his “pedo-type” remarks.

Joseph Menn and Naomi Nix contributed from San Francisco.

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