Twitter temporarily closed its offices and cut workers’ access to internal systems on Friday as it began sacking hundreds of staff without notice, a week after the billionaire Elon Musk took over the social media platform.
The firings, which could see as many as half of Twitter’s 7,500 workers dismissed, came as Musk revealed brands had begun pulling their advertisements, leading to what he said was a “massive drop in revenue”.
Audi, General Motors, General Mills and Pfizer were among those who paused spending on the service, amid growing concern about the direction Twitter will take under Musk.
Just four days before the US midterm elections, in which hundreds of politicians are running for election, there were claims the “entire” curation team across Twitter had been dismissed, potentially jeopardizing the company’s ability to counter misinformation, with one sacked moderator warning of a risk content could become “more toxic”.
Some staff awoke on Friday to find they were locked out of their laptops and their access to the company Gmail and Slack had been revoked. Chris Younie, who works for Twitter in entertainment partnerships in the UK, tweeted: “Well this isn’t looking promising. Can’t log into emails. Mac won’t turn on. But so grateful this is happening at 3am. Really appreciate the thoughtfulness on the timing front guys…”
One employee told the Guardian that the platform could not “function as usual” on Friday because so many members of staff had been locked out of their employee work accounts.
Musk blamed “activist groups pressuring advertisers” for the drop in revenue but the trend appears to have started with the advertisers themselves. He claimed nothing had changed with content moderation, and accused activists of “trying to destroy free speech in America”.
However, according to internal sources it appeared the “entire” curation team across Twitter had been dismissed, although the system lockouts made it difficult to be certain. Twitter’s curation team plays a key role in coverage of “civic integrity” events such as elections, breaking news and sports, ensuring users have vetted information presented as moments, trends and topics products. It is viewed internally as a key filter against misleading posts.
The employee added that flags from partner news organisations about possible misinformation on the platform were going unanswered. “The platform is likely to become more toxic with less healthy information to counter the disinformation or misinformation narratives,” said the employee, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
Twitter’s policy on misleading content includes labelling contentious posts or flagging contextualising information next to such posts. The employee said they had been informed by email that their position was under review.
Staff had been informed in an email on Thursday that the cuts were coming. “In an effort to place Twitter on a healthy path, we will go through the difficult process of reducing our global workforce,” the email said. “We recognize that this will impact a number of individuals who have made valuable contributions to Twitter, but this action is unfortunately necessary to ensure the company’s success moving forward.”
The company said employees would find out by 9am Pacific time if they had been laid off. The email did not say how many people would lose their jobs but there have been reports that as many as half of Twitter’s staff could lose their positions. Late on Thursday, some Twitter staff said they had lost access to their email and Slack accounts, taken as a sign that they would be losing their jobs.
“Looks like I’m unemployed y’all. Just got remotely logged out of my work laptop and removed from Slack. #OneTeam forever. Loved you all so much. So sad it had to end this way,” tweeted one former Twitter employee.
The firings have already prompted legal action in the US. In the UK, union leaders compared Musk’s moves to the controversial firing of 800 P&O ferry workers this year and called for the government to act.
Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, which represents tech workers, said: “Twitter is treating its people appallingly. The government must make clear to Twitter’s new owners that we won’t accept a digital P&O and that no one is above the law in the UK, including big tech barons.”
Musk has already fired the company’s top executives, including the former CEO Parag Agrawal. He also removed the company’s board of directors and installed himself as the sole board member.
The sackings come at a difficult moment for Musk, who paid $44bn for the company and last month said he was “obviously overpaying for Twitter right now”.
Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist” and his takeover has been celebrated by many on the right who believed Twitter’s former leadership was censoring them. Immediately after his takeover, trolls flooded the service with hate speech.
The sudden nature of the layoffs may also have fallen foul of California employment law and already looks set to land Musk in court.
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (Warn) statute requires employers with at least 100 workers to disclose layoffs involving 500 or more employees, regardless of whether a company is publicly traded or privately held.
Barry White, a spokesperson for California’s employment development department, said on Thursday the agency had not received any such notifications from Twitter.
A class-action lawsuit was filed on Thursday in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of one employee who was laid off and three others who were locked out of their work accounts. It alleges that Twitter intends to lay off more employees and has violated the law by not providing the required notice.
The prominent trial lawyer Lisa Bloom said she had been in contact with many Twitter employees now facing redundancy. “Elon Musk has a history of violating California’s labor laws, as Tesla has been hit with a shocking number of sexual and racial harassment lawsuits. His workers are human beings who are all entitled to respectful treatment. This time a hard-hitting class-action lawsuit will finally educate him that even the world’s richest man is not above the law,” she said.
Simon Balmain, a former senior community manager at Twitter, told the Guardian he was “shocked, but not surprised” at the sudden job cuts at the tech firm. Balmain, who had worked at the company for a year, said: “I had finished work but still had my laptop open and we all received an email from the company about a reduction in head count. An hour after that my laptop flashed and was wiped, I no longer had access to my apps.”
He said that the suddenness of removing such a large chunk of the workforce overnight didn’t come as a huge shock as he had heard “credible rumours” that job cuts were coming and that the staff were “braced for impact”. Balmain said Musk’s comments since he indicated an interest to buy the company had been “bad for morale” at the firm.
He added: “I’ve spoken to a few people in the same position as me and what is very apparent is we had a very good corporate culture and since the news people have been really looking out for each other, including a number of former employees who have reached out and offered their support.”
Associated Press contributed to this story
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