Twitter owner Elon Musk’s dictatorial leadership style risks driving the company into unforced business mistakes, content moderation disasters and a deterioration of the platform’s core features that help protect vulnerable users, according to the former top Twitter official who oversaw the company’s content regulation before abruptly resigning. This month.
The social media company’s botched implementation of a paid verification feature “is an example of a disaster that slipped through the cracks” in the chaos Musk brought to Twitter, and the potential for further disasters made it impossible to stay, said former company chief Joel Roth. site’s integrity, in an on-stage interview with journalist Kara Swisher on Tuesday, his first public appearance since leaving Twitter on Nov. 10.
Roth and other colleagues tried to warn Musk of the “obvious” problems with his plan to offer a verified tag to any user who paid $8 a month. But Musk pushed ahead through sheer force of will, spawning a flurry of new fake accounts impersonating major brands, athletes and other verified users that soon forced Twitter to suspend the feature.
“It went off the rails exactly as we expected it to,” Roth said.
The public reflections of a senior Twitter leader who had close contact with Musk during the raw, early days of the company’s ownership — a period marked by internal turmoil and a devastating advertiser revolt — provide the latest evidence of the billionaire CEO running with his gut at the expense of virtually everyone else.
He said there was no explosive confrontation with Musk that led to Roth’s resignation, and the episode involving Twitter’s paid verification feature was just one of many factors that led to Roth’s decision to leave. But the experience showed the damage Musk’s freewheeling approach can do, Roth added, likening his final weeks at the company to standing at a seepage dam, desperately trying to plug the holes, but knowing that eventually something would slip past him.
In the hour-long interview, Roth warned Musk laissez-faire approach to content moderation and the lack of a transparent process for developing and enforcing the platform’s policies have made Twitter less secure, in part because there aren’t enough employees who understand that malicious actors are constantly trying to game the system in ways automated algorithms don’t know how to catch.
“People don’t sit still,” he said. “They are actively developing new ways to be terrible on the Internet.”
He urged Twitter users to monitor the operation of key security features such as muting, blocking and protected tweets, as early warning signs platforms could fail.
“If protected tweets stop working, run,” he said.
Two weeks after Musk closed on the Twitter acquisition, Roth presented himself as a voice of stability and calm amid a company undergoing dramatic change. Roth knew that if he stayed with the company, Musk was using him to help advertisers leave the platform. But Roth also suggested that he and others who didn’t leave Twitter may have been able to influence Musk and stop him from making harmful unilateral decisions that he had “multiple options.”
Even as he spent his first days in the new regime fighting “surge of hateful behavior on Twitter” apparently intended to test Musk’s tolerance for racism and anti-Semitism on the platform, Roth sought to reassure the public that Twitter’s work on trust and safety continues unabated.
He shared data about what was happening on the platform enforcement effortsand mitigated the impact Twitter has announced massive layoffs from its content moderation team, saying the job cuts in that department are smaller than the broader organization.
Back on November 9, Roth spoke alongside Musk at a public Twitter Spaces event aimed at persuading advertisers not to flee the platform. In an hour-long session that drew more than 100,000 listeners, including representatives from Adidas, Chevron and other major brands, Roth was optimistic about Twitter’s plans to combat hate speech.
The very next day, Roth abruptly resigned, joining a host of other senior executives, including Twitter’s chief privacy officer and information security officer.
In a subsequent New York Times op-ed, Roth said his departure was due to Musk’s highly personal and improvisational approach to moderating content. Roth’s essay accused Musk of “maintaining a lack of legitimacy through his impulsive changes and tweets about Twitter’s rules.”
On Tuesday, Roth said the popular narrative portraying Musk as a villain is incorrect and does not reflect his own experience with him. But, he said, Musk surrounds himself with those who rarely challenge him.
Before Musk took over Twitter, Roth wrote down a series of commitments that led to his decision to quit. One limit that was never reached, he said, was that Roth would refuse to lie about Musk. Another limitation that eventually came up and prompted his decision to step down was “if Twitter becomes governed by dictatorial edict rather than policy.”
Roth’s role at Twitter came under scrutiny in 2020 after the company added a fact-checking report to a fake tweet by then-US President Donald Trump.
Roth’s 2016 and 2017 tweets criticizing President Trump and his supporters have been dug up and used to argue that Roth and Twitter are biased against the president.
Among Roth’s tweets was one he wrote on Election Day 2016, which read: “I’m just saying, we’re flying over the states that voted for a racist mandarin for whatever reason.”
Twitter defended Roth at the time, saying, “No Twitter representative is responsible for our policies or enforcement actions, and it is unfortunate that individual employees have been targeted for company decisions.”
When Roth was still at Twitter in October, Musk was asked about Roth’s old tweets.
“We’ve all posted some questionable tweets, me more than most, but I want to be clear that I support Yoel. I think he has high integrity and we’re all entitled to our political beliefs,” Musk tweeted.
Roth also became Twitter’s personal face and target of harassment after the company decided to suppress a 2020 New York Post story about Hunter Biden, which then-CEO Jack Dorsey has said was a mistake.
“It is widely reported that I personally directed the suppression of the Hunter Biden story. It is not true. That’s an absolute, unequivocal falsehood,” Roth told Swisher on Tuesday.
Roth did not think it was appropriate to remove the content from Twitter, he said, but at the time the story appeared to bear the hallmarks of a hack and leak operation. Roth also said Tuesday that, in retrospect, suppressing the Hunter Biden story was a mistake.
“They were on high alert from what happened in 2016 and all the hacked emails and stuff,” Schwisher told CNN Wednesday morning, reflecting on her discussion with Roth.
While Roth may have disagreed with the suppression of Hunter Biden’s story, he defended Twitter’s other decisions to ban Trump for his activity around the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, as well as a personal account owned by Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green and an account owned by for the satirical website Babylon Bee.
All three cases involved apparent violations of Twitter’s publicly available written policies, Roth said, making them a much clearer case of enforcement.
Amid layoffs that gutted Twitter’s content moderation team, Musk has said he plans to rely much more on crowd-sourced fact-checking of tweets to provide context for misleading claims. But Roth said that by doing so, Twitter risks abdicating its accountability to the public, which should still apply despite being a private company.
He said policymakers should require platforms to share data with academics and researchers, preventing private platforms like Twitter from escaping their obligations to be transparent.
Asked to give Musk one piece of advice for the future, Roth paused.
“Humility goes a long way,” he said.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
– CNN’s Donnie O’Sullivan contributed to this report