Twitter’s Trust and Safety Head Ditches Protocol for Musk Whims
Ella Irwin is Musk’s most faithful supporter, even when his impulses buck convention
It was half past noon on Nov. 17. Twitter employees had a little over an hour to decide whether to click “yes” on a form Musk had sent out, asking that they declare they were willing to do their jobs in “hardcore” mode, or quit. Irwin encouraged the team to stay and find a way to work with Musk, according to three people who attended the meeting at the San Francisco headquarters. Though his methods were unconventional, she said, employees needed to adjust and support how he wanted to lead the company.
Some of the staff had a major problem with her pitch: The way Musk wanted to lead was going directly against the policies and procedures Twitter had spent years refining, an effort to build trust with the public and turn around its reputation for exposing users to toxic experiences. Already, Musk’s antics had spooked major advertisers and led to online harassment for former Twitter executives. Much of the remaining trust and safety staff hoped primarily to change his mind or protect Twitter from him, according to people familiar with the matter — but not Irwin.
Irwin has become the chief executor of Musk’s whims, even when it goes against established protocols for social media content work that Twitter and its peers have refined for the past decade, according to more than a dozen current and former employees. Musk has rewarded Irwin’s loyalty, trusting her to explain Twitter’s moves to the public in tweets and news articles.
relates to Twitter’s Trust and Safety Head Ditches Protocol for Musk Whims
IrwinSource: Ella Irwin
Since Musk took the helm of Twitter, Irwin has helped him break conventions in how Twitter manages user account policy. Twitter rolled out — then abruptly revoked — a policy banning the promotion of accounts on other social networks. The company temporarily suspended journalists who cover Musk and Twitter, removed key misinformation policies, and banned leftist activists because Musk wanted to do so. And access to internal documents and tools has been granted to outside writers handpicked by Musk to support a narrative — disputed by former staffers — that before he stepped in, Twitter was servile to US intelligence and federal health agencies.
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“Nearly all the people who know how to build safety systems at Twitter have left the company, and those who are still there appear to be unwilling or unable to tell their boss that the things he is asking them to do are dangerous or violate Twitter’s legal commitments,” said Laura Edelson, a computer scientist at New York University who studies online political communication.
In an emailed response to an interview request, Irwin, 47, said she could not speak for others, but she believes there are “many folks at Twitter who understand how to build safety systems and work on these systems daily.”
Being the head of trust and safety at Twitter has long been a crucial and closely scrutinized job, given the potential impact that person has over speech on one of the world’s most influential platforms. Previous leaders have been tasked with making complicated and controversial decisions, including when to ban accounts when they cross a line, be it by jeopardizing public health in the midst of a pandemic, or by threatening the safety of democratic elections around the world. Twitter’s decisions are often later probed by politicians and regulators, and so they are typically made with careful documentation pointing to specific policy justifications for the action, the current and former employees say.
But now, internal documentation shows a decision-making process amounting to little more than unilateral directives issued by Twitter’s new owner. In late November, an account belonging to the leftist activist Chad Loder was banned from the platform. In Twitter’s internal system, a note read, “Suspension: direct request from Elon Musk,” according to a screenshot viewed by Bloomberg. On Dec. 11, Jack Sweeney, the creator of a bot tracking Musk’s private plane, posted a screenshot showing Irwin had sent a Slack message directing employees to restrict visibility to Sweeney’s bot account, @elonjet. On Dec. 15, when Twitter suspended prominent journalists covering Twitter and Musk, the action was accompanied by an internal note: “direction of Ella.”
Twitter used to have a group called the Global Escalations Team that could be a check on power at the top of the company, overruling executives based on existing policy. Employees say that group has folded, and Irwin and Musk can no longer be challenged through a formal process. In her emailed response, Irwin said that was “not accurate at all,” declining to elaborate.
Still, this month Irwin confirmed more cuts to teams handling global content moderation, hate speech, misinformation policy, global appeals and state media. Nine days later, two Taliban officials briefly gained access to blue checkmarks through Twitter Blue, the platform’s paid subscription tier. Twitter’s moderation research consortium, introduced in late 2021, is now effectively defunct, with no program managers left to oversee the work. Dozens of as-yet unpublished — but completed — reports detailing information operations on the platform will likely never become public, according to four former staffers who worked on the studies. (In an email, Irwin said she did not know of the reports and could not comment on them.)
“It’s like Musk is taking all of the content moderation best practice norms the trust and safety community has built up over the past decade and is trying to set them on fire,” said Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School. “The entire trend has been towards giving users more transparency, predictability and due process. What Musk is doing is like the antithesis of this.”
Musk took over Twitter in October. Source: Twitter account of Elon Musk via AFP/Getty Images
Yoel Roth, who led the company’s trust and safety team when Musk took over in late October, was initially optimistic about the new owner’s plans, according to four people familiar with the matter. Just days into his tenure as CEO, Musk met with the leaders of several civil rights groups and said he wanted to form a Twitter content moderation council to think through complicated decisions, like whether to bring back former President Donald Trump’s account. Musk also leaned on Roth, who had been at Twitter more than 7 years, for his institutional knowledge, and started holding him up publicly as the top executive dealing with Twitter’s policy decisions. While other departments at Twitter were cut dramatically, trust and safety under Roth lost less than a quarter of its employees in the first round of layoffs.
But within days, it became clear to Roth that Musk would be making decisions unilaterally about Twitter’s rules and whose accounts would get reinstated and banned. He resigned, saying later in a New York Times op-ed that “a Twitter whose policies are defined by edict has little need for a trust and safety function dedicated to its principled development.”
Some Twitter critics celebrated Roth’s departure, given his role at the company during controversial decisions like Trump’s ban in 2021. But internally, employees were concerned that Musk would now be able to make decisions without any pushback.
What little they knew of Irwin, who had joined a few months prior to Musk’s takeover, didn’t inspire confidence. Her background was not in content policy. Rather, she’d overseen Twitter’s division handling issues like abuse and spam. Before that, she held senior roles at Twilio Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., where she focused on preventing hacks and marketplace abuse, and much less on user speech. Irwin earned her bachelor’s degree in business management from California Lutheran University in 2000, then pursued a postgraduate master’s degree in the same field at Golden Gate University, graduating in 2005, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Yusupha Jow, an engineering manager who worked for Irwin at Twilio, said that she was highly organized and relentless at work, traits she picked up during her time at Amazon. “Everything she did required a certain standard of excellence,” he said. But he acknowledged her management style wouldn’t suit everyone. “If you are overly sensitive you probably want to recalibrate.”
She joined at a tough time for Twitter’s health and policy teams. Musk had spent months publicly criticizing Twitter executives, arguing that the company was misleading the public about how many bot and spam accounts were included in Twitter’s calculation for total users. While Twitter defended itself in legal filings in a court fight with Musk, the team Irwin inherited grappled with a narrative that their work overseeing bots and spam was incompetent, said a former employee, who declined to be named discussing internal matters.
Irwin sent her new team a multi-page document advising them on how best to work with her, including details about her personality and preferred operating style. She asked employees to defend their ongoing projects using a template she devised, killing projects she deemed not worth the resources. While it’s standard for new managers to take stock of their team’s strategy, Irwin’s abrupt approach alienated some, employees said. The process also slowed things down as teams were forced to wait for her approval to continue working.
Irwin, in her emailed statement, said that she killed initiatives because “there were fewer people than there were desired projects to complete.”
Irwin and Roth also directly butted heads in the months before he left the company, according to people familiar with the matter. As part of the review of unnecessary projects, she ordered a pause of work Roth oversaw that scanned the social network for spammy actors or people who wished to inject disinformation into the platform, such as those who spread falsehoods favorable to the Chinese Communist Party, according to four former employees. Roth, who was a lateral peer of Irwin’s, bristled at what he saw as overreach by Irwin into crucial processes executed by his team, the people said. Roth overruled her, saying it was essential work, they said. Irwin said she could not remember “any specific conflict” that she had with Roth and that the two “worked very well together.”
The friction with Roth made Irwin an unlikely successor. Her colleagues believed she had left the company soon after Musk’s takeover, when he was slashing non-essential workers. But after Roth resigned, Musk asked Irwin back. Her first day back in the office was the day of her pep talk. “I encouraged the team to embrace change and keep an open mind,” she said. “I was never fired or unemployed from Twitter.”
Employees thought that while she was a strong operator, she didn’t have the background in content work to push back on Musk’s decisions that might reverberate in society and affect which information users would be exposed to on Twitter, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. Musk’s Twitter Files project — which involved leaking internal emails and documentation to external journalists — was her first test.
On Dec. 8, the writer Bari Weiss posted a Twitter thread that purported to show that company employees had covertly blacklisted accounts and tweets; in reality, the documents she shared showed workers earnestly debating the spirit of their content moderation policies. Weiss posted images that only select employees have access to, and can be used to see private details of a user’s profile. The images contained the identifier “eirwin4903ZWlyd21u863” — revealing that Irwin was the company source for the material.
The images were photos taken of a computer screen, which implies Irwin could have been sitting side by side with Weiss while viewing Twitter users’ accounts, people familiar with the systems said. “From a security standpoint, it’s horrific,” said one ex-employee. Though Irwin said she never gave Weiss access to people’s direct messages, two people said the images showed Irwin had access to them while provisioning the screenshots for Weiss.
Multiple employees explained that as Irwin wouldn’t have used the tool in her prior job, she may not have known her identifier would display publicly. Irwin says that’s not true. “I was very aware (but unconcerned) of it being there,” she wrote in an email.
It is “bizarre” for a head of trust and safety to share an internal tool with outsiders, said Steve Weis, an engineer at the software company Databricks who has worked in trust and safety teams at social networks. “Employees misusing internal access like this undermines the very trust that a head of trust and safety is supposed to be building,” he said.
There used to be an entire information security team dedicated to following processes, auditing what staffers were using the tool for, and looking proactively for unusual access patterns, said a former high-level Twitter employee — a team that no longer exists because members either quit or were fired.
Other documents in the Twitter Files displayed the email addresses and names of junior workers involved in high-profile decisions, exposing them to public attacks and threats. Roth had to flee his home after Musk attacked him online, according to people familiar with the matter.
In December, Irwin continued to back up Musk in criticizing Twitter’s work from before he took over. Musk said Twitter “refused to take action on child exploitation for years,” a statement Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey disputed. Irwin tweeted: “I wish this was false but my experience this year supports this.”
Two employees who worked on child safety at Twitter said the team had been hit hard by attrition by the time Irwin joined, but to say that it refused to take action on the problem was false. Twitter used to maintain a world map with pushpins for the locations of the dozens of child predators who got arrested as a result of cyber tips the company submitted.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a federally designated clearinghouse for online child sexual abuse imagery that works with law enforcement agencies, also refuted the idea that Twitter had not taken action on child exploitative content before Musk’s takeover. “It’s been disheartening to see that rhetoric because we had relationships with people that really, truly cared about the issues,” said Gavin Portnoy, a spokesman.
In her email, Irwin said she never claimed no work was being done on the issue — just that it was understaffed.
As Irwin prioritizes supporting Musk, a former company executive said they believed that the platform is on a path to primarily serving the interests of the already-powerful, and those whose ideologies align with him.
“Twitter’s policies and practices in the trust and safety space were built around defending the rights of users around the world, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized communities,” the former executive said. “Since the acquisition, the company’s only actions have been to silence critics of Elon, to expose journalists and others to harm, and to violate basic ethical standards and privacy laws.”
(8:09:30 PM) William Maggos: you have too many IM accounts
(8:09:44 PM) joe hahn: hah. yea.. i logged into all my old ones to see what happenes
(8:10:11 PM) William Maggos: http://publicpatron.org/?page_id=2
(8:10:16 PM) William Maggos: does that make sense?
(8:18:51 PM) joe hahn: +
(8:19:05 PM) William Maggos: what do you think?
(8:19:09 PM) joe hahn: check out an app called freemind. ive been using it for brainstorming
(8:20:00 PM) joe hahn: i like it. how small could transactions be/
(8:20:00 PM) joe hahn: ?
(8:20:36 PM) joe hahn: the first thing i thoguht of was somethign that integrates with paypal, running on the taskbar that can communicate with a standardized website widget or something
(8:21:05 PM) William Maggos: well, i think id limit fans to at least $5 a month
(8:21:49 PM) joe hahn: one would have to spend at least $5 a month or else the remainder is donated to charity or something ?
(8:22:06 PM) William Maggos: i didnt think of how low the distribution to artists would be
(8:22:29 PM) William Maggos: maybe it only gets distributed once it gets to be over $5…
(8:23:26 PM) William Maggos: when the fan sets up the monthly donation, you could use paypal or a cc…
(8:23:48 PM) joe hahn: aah.. google ads owes me about eighty dollars.. they pay out at 100. its taken about two years to get there 😛
(8:24:14 PM) joe hahn: i was thinking the fan should be encouraged to spend
(8:24:16 PM) William Maggos: audioscrobbler (what last.fm uses) is open source
(8:24:33 PM) William Maggos: shouldnt be hard to make it track time and work for video
(8:24:59 PM) William Maggos: ive been thinkin about how to encourage the fan to donate more per month
(8:25:21 PM) joe hahn: what if 30min of content takes 30sec to download and the fan disconnects while listening to the 29:30 remaining?
(8:25:24 PM) William Maggos: the site would tell you your DPM (donation per minute)
(8:26:58 PM) William Maggos: you wouldnt always have to be connected, just like last.fm knows what i listened to on my ipod
(8:29:24 PM) William Maggos: it would be based on what you actually listened to, as directly as possible
(8:29:32 PM) joe hahn: +
(8:30:19 PM) joe hahn: id be interested in getting in on this if you are seeking to form a team or anything
(8:30:34 PM) joe hahn: im also about to go with digital distro for PROTMAN and other releases of mine
(8:31:02 PM) William Maggos: thanks, im trying to figure out the pieces
(8:32:20 PM) William Maggos: im gonna try to use the website to lay it all out
(8:33:34 PM) joe hahn: ive got a fatty new server, too
(8:36:02 PM) joe hahn: so you arent trying to repair or replace the itunes model.. you just want to have something a little more pinko for people who want to give people more choice in deciding the value of media so the consumers can spend what they want, and the producers can avoid a greedy middleman?
(8:36:29 PM) joe hahn: btw.. scott mcloud is speaking at columbia soon
(8:37:54 PM) joe hahn: def check this out http://www.scottmccloud.com/comics/icst/icst-5/icst-5.html
(8:38:01 PM) joe hahn: though it is dated like it says
(8:41:01 PM) joe hahn has left the conversation.
(9:19:10 PM) William Maggos: The service would not store or distribute content, but it would facilitate the free distribution of content that the internet was built for.
(9:19:25 PM) William Maggos: not sure if that was clear, and i added it to the post.
(9:19:26 PM) joe hahn: riiight
(9:20:03 PM) William Maggos: i asked clint what he thought of it too, and i think he was confused.
(9:20:04 PM) joe hahn: its strange for me to wrap my head around a little since im so used to being able to be so DIY about hosting my own content
(9:20:31 PM) William Maggos: but you give away your stuff, right?
(9:20:54 PM) William Maggos: this just makes it as easy as possible for fans to support you
(9:21:54 PM) William Maggos: im actually trying to replace just about everything, for those with a broadband connection
(9:22:20 PM) William Maggos: but thats longterm, it plays on the independent artists in audio and video at first
(9:23:14 PM) William Maggos: no need for cable tv or labels or netflix if it takes off
(9:23:19 PM) joe hahn: what if I want to decided the price?
(9:23:26 PM) joe hahn: but keep it reasonable
(9:23:56 PM) William Maggos: well, how you get your stuff to the fan is up to you
(9:24:13 PM) William Maggos: but the way of the internet, kinda hard to stop
(9:24:30 PM) joe hahn: ex: i intend to give away mp3s, but if people/DJs want flac or wav, i decide.. i suppose in that instance the casual listeners can tip me for mp3s
(9:24:43 PM) joe hahn: true true true
(9:24:45 PM) William Maggos: and this system would encourage you to put it out free, if the DPM becomes high enough
(9:25:03 PM) joe hahn: so it would give even pirates a convenient chance to tip
(9:25:16 PM) William Maggos: people stumble upon it and they are using PP, you get paid
(9:26:29 PM) William Maggos: its all about the DPM of the people who listen to your stuff, and its automatic
(9:27:04 PM) joe hahn: lately ive been paying for software more often.. and donating where they allow you to donate whatever you wish via paypal
(9:27:11 PM) William Maggos: and the fan doesnt really see any additional cost, just whatever they are willing to donate per month
(9:27:16 PM) joe hahn: but its only for applications where i can donate or pay less than $20
(9:27:50 PM) William Maggos: and the neat thing is their donation is actually gonna go directly to the creators of the stuff they listen or watch, no middlemen
(9:28:19 PM) William Maggos: that means if they want more of it, they have direct incentive to donate more per month
(9:29:30 PM) William Maggos: for the fan, its like a cable or netflix subscription
(9:31:05 PM) joe hahn: hmmm
(9:31:16 PM) William Maggos: and if you only listen to one album all month, they get all your money
(9:31:29 PM) joe hahn: what about this instance………….
(9:31:37 PM) joe hahn: when i am seeking music to DJ
(9:32:01 PM) joe hahn: i enqueue the download of hundreds of mp3s and wait a day or so
(9:32:18 PM) joe hahn: the next day i take the hundred or so that have completed, and put them into a folder on my computer
(9:33:09 PM) joe hahn: i then listen to about fifteen seconds of each. the beginning, skip to the middle for five seconds, then somewhere in the last third
(9:33:36 PM) joe hahn: deciding if i want to listen further or DJ it later.. i put it into a new folder or tag it, rate it with more stars etc
(9:34:34 PM) joe hahn: i then might put them on a cd for use in a CDJ as cd audio or mp3s. or i might use a different computer for DJing, or even an SD card for listening in my car stereo
(9:35:38 PM) William Maggos: its up to you and your media player, but you never pay more than you want to per month
(9:36:28 PM) William Maggos: whatever you play it in, if you can install the plugin there, it would track the time you actually listen and what you listen to
(9:38:29 PM) William Maggos: instead of this crappy itunes or other system, you can do whatever you want with the files
(9:40:05 PM) William Maggos: those 15 secs of each song are registered if you listen in a media player with the PP plugin installed, but you dont pay anymore per month
(9:40:05 PM) joe hahn: I am currently idle.
(9:42:09 PM) William Maggos: your monthly donation is always whatever you choose to pay, and the creators of those tracks just get some money that month and the creators of other files that you listen or watch get a little less
(9:57:37 PM) joe hahn: very interesting
(9:58:57 PM) joe hahn: i was just talking to rita about this. i sort of broke it down as trying to find a way to maximize profit to the artist while accepting the inevitability and ubiquity of “piracy”
(9:59:31 PM) William Maggos: yep, thats about it
(9:59:43 PM) William Maggos: i modified the post to say that more clearly
(10:00:00 PM) William Maggos: The internet is not only the perfect distribution system for text and images, but also for audio and video. The main problem left is how to fairly reimburse the creators of all this great content, while maintaining the open nature of the internet for those of us who just want to watch or listen. We dont need another service or method to store or distribute content, but we do need to better facilitate the free distribution of content that the internet was built for.
(10:01:02 PM) William Maggos: damnit, hold up, somehow i lost the important part
(10:03:25 PM) joe hahn: 😛
(10:03:53 PM) joe hahn: i have 40,000 myspace friends btw if you ever want some targeted publicity
(10:04:06 PM) joe hahn: for my protman music page
(10:04:47 PM) William Maggos: nice, not yet, but a big part of this going to be getting the creators to tell their fans about it
(10:05:07 PM) joe hahn: +
(10:05:23 PM) joe hahn: also.. i take a lot of consideration into the naming of the mp3s i make available
(10:05:48 PM) joe hahn: though i guess ive been pretty dumb about id3 tags
(10:10:05 PM) William Maggos: The internet is not only the perfect distribution system for text and images, but also for audio and video. The main problem left is how to fairly reimburse the creators of all this great content, while maintaining the open nature of the internet for those of us who just want to watch or listen. What we need to do is acceptthat the internet is the perfect system for the free distribution of content , and fans are gonna need to find a better way to support the creators of the stuff they love if only for the selfish reason that they want more of it. We don’t need another service or method to store or distribute content, but we do need a new way to support artists that is internet-friendly.
(10:40:09 PM) joe hahn: what do you think about the polarization of the people who opt-in vs the people who opt-out and are villified by the opt-inners?
(11:16:46 PM) William Maggos: id love to set up a caste system, but unfortunately, your fan account would be private
(11:16:56 PM) William Maggos: creator accounts would be very public
(11:17:29 PM) William Maggos: id love to somehow give a greater incentive to opt-in and have a high DPM
(11:17:41 PM) joe hahn: thats another thing i was gonna ask about the privacy of what you listen to. lastfm makes what you listen to public
(11:18:00 PM) William Maggos: right, on our system, it would be private i think
(11:19:53 PM) William Maggos: it would be great to be able to incentivize large buy-in by somehow letting artists give higher donators first access at tickets or something, mabye
(11:20:40 PM) joe hahn: do you think there are any ways artists could exploit the system
(11:20:42 PM) joe hahn: ?
(11:21:02 PM) joe hahn: such as releasing the same content under different names. i suppose there could be backlash from the listeners
(11:21:38 PM) joe hahn: though it guess it is time based, and not per-track like lastfm
(11:21:46 PM) joe hahn: gotta reboot. btb
(11:21:47 PM) joe hahn: brb
Pretty simple. I am starting a new blog at cultureburn dot org. That will be my new home, aka the site where I bitch about the state of the world esp as it comes to media and culture and how the internet could really put things right if we understand its true potential as infrastructure and build off of it in the right way. I’m gonna move most of the old posts from here over there as well.
The plan for publicpatron dot org is to still be the home of one of those pieces that builds off of the internet as cultural infrastructure. Like I have written before, a non-profit tip jar. But my rants will be moved over to the new site while I try to turn this site into the place that provides the service. Bout it.
Radio Paradise does internet radio right. And the way they pay for it, well, it basically demonstrates that the Public Patron model could work. From their support page:
Our plan is simple: we create the best station we possibly can, refrain from contaminating it with advertising, and then ask you to pay us what you think it’s worth. So far it seems to be working out nicely. We’re not likely to get rich this way, but that’s not our goal.
Here at RP we’re not just non-commercial. We’re anti-commercial. We feel that quality radio programming and advertising just cannot co-exist. We also choose to refrain from forcibly extracting money from you by charging subscription fees. We leave it up to you to decide what our service is worth to you.
Your voluntary support enables us to devote all of our time and energy to making RP the best station possible – and pays for the bandwidth, equipment and services required to keep the station online, and for the rather substantial copyright royalties we are required to pay.
The amount of your contribution is up to you – based on your opinion of how much you enjoy RP & what you can afford. A number of listeners have adopted the “one hour’s wages per month” formula – some can afford to send even more than that (thanks!), others can afford only $5 per month.
We particularly appreciate automatic monthly, quarterly or annual support payments. The more regular ongoing support we receive in that fashion the less we have to bug you on the air. Please consider choosing that option on the support form.
And, as always, we understand that contributing money is just not an option for some of you. That’s fine. All streams and services at RP are open to everyone, and we will do everything in our power to keep it that way.