Twitter Ex-Safety Chief Yoel Roth Explains Why He Left After Elon Musk Takeover : Consider This from NPR It didn't take long for Elon Musk's stated vision for Twitter—a "digital town square" where all legal speech flows freely—to run head long into reality. Namely, the fact that many citizens of that town square want to share inaccurate, racist or violent ideas.

Yoel Roth used to lead the team that set the rules for what was allowed on Twitter, and aimed to keep users safe. Not long after Musk took over the company, Roth quit.

In an interview, he explains why he left and what he thinks is ahead for the company.

This episode also features reporting from NPR's Shannon Bond.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Twitter's Safety Chief Quit. Here's Why.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Elon Musk's deal to buy Twitter closed, the tech site The Verge greeted the news with this headline - "Welcome To Hell, Elon." That's because Musk's stated vision for Twitter, a digital town square where all legal speech flows freely - well, he was about to run head-on into the citizens of that digital town square.

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ALISYN CAMEROTA: Well, in the 24 hours since Elon Musk has owned Twitter, racist tweets have proliferated.

SHAPIRO: Things got chaotic fast. Musk floated big changes to policies and features, launched and quickly rolled back a subscription service, laid off half the staff. Trolls seized the moment to spread hate. Musk himself shared incendiary memes and deleted a tweet containing a homophobic conspiracy theory about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband. All of it sent advertisers running for the exits.

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CARTER EVANS: Meantime, the list of companies reportedly suspending business with Twitter is still growing.

SHAPIRO: Ad sales, by the way, make up something like 90% of Twitter's revenue. And the dominoes kept falling.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Elon Musk says Apple is threatening to withhold Twitter from its App Store. That move could be devastating for Twitter.

SHAPIRO: Musk later called that one a misunderstanding. But there was also a warning from the European Union's commissioner for digital policy. He told Musk Twitter would have to do more to protect users from hate speech and misinformation or risk a ban. Even before Musk showed up, moderation was a challenge for Twitter, as it has been for virtually every social media company. It's especially true outside the U.S. in places like India, where the company has struggled to keep up with incendiary rhetoric in languages other than English.

THENMOZHI SOUNDARARAJAN: One tweet could set off a pogrom.

SHAPIRO: That's Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a human rights group focused on caste discrimination.

SOUNDARARAJAN: Before Musk acquired Twitter, it was understood within the company that markets in South Asia, including India, were countries in which mass atrocity was agreed to be occurring.

SHAPIRO: Her group is part of Twitter's outside Trust and Safety Council, which advises the company, helping it develop lists of racial slurs, for example. It hasn't met since Musk took over. And Musk has taken other steps that could exacerbate these kinds of problems, like reinstating banned accounts and gutting the staff responsible for setting and enforcing rules.

SOUNDARARAJAN: It is not clear to me at all that Musk knows the kinds of liability he's creating with these sort of antics.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - the man who used to lead the team that was responsible for keeping people on Twitter safe has quit. We'll ask him why.

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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Friday, December 2.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Yoel Roth has held a leadership role at Twitter through years of crises and upheaval at the company. When Russians interfered in U.S. elections in 2016, he was there.

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YOEL ROTH: So these would be accounts that were pretending to be Americans to try and influence certain parts of the conversation.

SHAPIRO: Yoel Roth was there when Twitter made a major decision after the events of January 6, 2021.

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JIM ACOSTA: The president's Twitter account has been suspended.

SHAPIRO: And he was there when Elon Musk took over last month.

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ELON MUSK: There are a lot of really talented people at Twitter that I think can take the company in a lot of interesting, new directions.

SHAPIRO: The day after those two men held that Twitter spaces chat with advertisers, Yoel Roth resigned. His title had been head of trust and safety. And now he has agreed to talk to us. Yoel, thank you so much for coming back on All Things Considered.

ROTH: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Well, it's been a couple of weeks since you left Twitter, so when you look back over your shoulder and see the company from the outside, what stands out to you most right now?

ROTH: Twitter appears to be in a moment of transition. And that seems obvious, perhaps, given there was just a $44 billion corporate transition.

SHAPIRO: Right.

ROTH: But also the identity and the soul of the company are in transition. If Twitter looks more or less the same as it did, that's not surprising. But I'd also say it's very much still too soon to tell whether we are in the Twitter of the future or what that future even might be.

SHAPIRO: Some people instead of the word transition would use implosion or some other destructive term. That's not the term you chose. Why not?

ROTH: You know, I think large tech companies like Twitter have a massive amount of inertia. And I think that inertia can be both a force for good and a force for bad. At its worst, inertia can cause companies like Twitter to be too slow to respond to emergent threats and issues. But the flipside of inertia is it also makes it a lot harder for things to immediately collapse. And Twitter is a company with engineering excellence that built a world-class product of policies that were crafted thoughtfully and documented publicly and were enforced rigorously. Those are all things that, even if you want to dismantle them, take some amount of time to change. And I think that's informing what we see from the company today.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about Elon Musk because you were at Twitter for eight years until he arrived, close to eight years. And when he arrived, you not only stuck around at first, you kind of publicly defended some of the choices that he made. And then you abruptly left. Why'd you leave?

ROTH: Months before the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, I wrote down a series of red lines and limits. And my goal in doing this was to avoid emotional decision-making in the moments after the acquisition. Some of the limits that I wrote down were pretty obvious in retrospect. They were things like, I won't break the law, or I won't lie publicly on anybody's behalf. But one of the ones that ended up being the most important to me was that I'll stay so long as decisions at Twitter are made in a procedurally just way. What I meant was if the process by which we make decisions at Twitter is based in our policies and our principles, and it takes into account systematic analysis of all of the risks and possible outcomes of those decisions, then I can stay and work towards making those decisions. Ultimately, you can change a policy. You can change a principle. You can choose to reinstate one account or another. But what matters to me ultimately is not the decision but how the decision is made. And for me, I wouldn't want to be a part of undermining it with capricious decision-making. And unfortunately, that's what happened.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying that Elon Musk made decisions on an arbitrary and capricious basis without consulting a rulebook?

ROTH: That's what we've started to see happen at the company, particularly since my departure. We've seen it with the abrupt reinstatement of a number of accounts on Twitter, including the account of the former president. And we've also seen sort of quick, tweet-length announcements of various rule changes or supposed rule changes.

SHAPIRO: What was Elon Musk like to work for in those early days? I mean, you worked closely with him. And it feels like we have these two contrasting images of, on the one hand, the richest man in the world who is the CEO of these major companies and, on the other hand, this person who is acting very impulsively, some would say destructively, capriciously laying people off - more than half the staff at one blow. What was he actually like to work with?

ROTH: I was, more than anything else, struck by the fact that he operates a lot like other business executives do, which is if you put good information in front of him and make recommendations and ask him to evaluate the facts of an issue, he does so quite thoughtfully.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example.

ROTH: A notable example of this is the satirical website The Babylon Bee, which had been restricted on Twitter after violating the company's hateful conduct rules related to misgendering of trans people. And Mr. Musk asked me and the trust and safety team to reinstate the account. He bought the company for $44 billion, and so that decision is eminently within his right. But I asked him a series of questions - whether we were changing our policies about misgendering and whether his intent was to make misgendering permissible under the Twitter rules, whereas previously we banned it. I asked him whether he intended to just make a one-off exception for the account of The Babylon Bee, but not change the underlying policies. He was convinced ultimately that taking that kind of one-off action would undermine Twitter's rules and would create sort of gaps in consistency of enforcement that would make Twitter a less trustworthy place.

SHAPIRO: So how do you reconcile that with his later decision to have a user poll about whether to allow Donald Trump back on the platform, which seems like the definition of capricious?

ROTH: An old phrase that was a product development mantra at Facebook that I think has been attributed to Mark Zuckerberg is move fast and break things. And I think that mentality can explain a lot of what's happened at Twitter. The company has been criticized for years for being entirely too slow. It seems that in place of that perhaps overly slow culture, Mr. Musk is introducing a culture of moving quickly and unfortunately breaking things as a result. And I think the 24-hour polls to make massive platform governance decisions are an example of something that enables quick decision-making, but I'm not convinced that it enables rigorous decision-making.

SHAPIRO: You said that Twitter is in a moment of transition, and I want to talk about what that transition means for users, including outside of the U.S., where most Twitter users are. I spoke last week with Alexandra Givens of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Her organization serves on Twitter's trust and safety council. And she was really worried about Elon Musk's decision to lay off Twitter's entire human rights team. Here's what she said.

ALEXANDRA GIVENS: The company was trying. There were important moments where they took a stand to defend the rights of users to spread important messages online and to push back on instances of government repression or authoritarian efforts.

SHAPIRO: So, Yoel, what do you think the future of Twitter for people who advocate for human rights, for people who push back against government oppression is likely to be?

ROTH: One of the most important uses of Twitter over the years has been the use of speaking truth to power through the platform, and enabling that use safely requires constant investment by a lot of people. Twitter is known in the industry for being a company that has regularly gone to court to defend the privacy of its users. If you are a human rights activist in a country that is hostile to activism or an embedded journalist or a queer person in a country where that's illegal, your very ability to participate as your true self online is contingent on being able to not share some parts of your true self, not just publicly, but also with a company like Twitter. I truly hope that that practice doesn't go away under Mr. Musk.

SHAPIRO: Well, except that people who would do that have, for the most part, been laid off, right?

ROTH: And I think that's the real risk. You can't do this work with a skeleton crew.

SHAPIRO: And so what does that mean for the human rights advocates, the free speech activists?

ROTH: I think people need to very thoughtfully and carefully weigh the costs and benefits of using Twitter, given their personal security situation. And that's a terrifying prospect to have to come to terms with, especially for many people who have spent the better part of a decade building a platform and an audience and a community on Twitter.

SHAPIRO: So you left Twitter pretty abruptly. And you did not sign a nondisclosure agreement. Other execs who left in the earlier days did sign NDAs. And I'm curious. If those people could talk, what do you think they'd be saying right now?

ROTH: One of the defining traits of Twitter was a culture of care and of empathy. And many of the people I spoke with were personally and professionally heartbroken about the fact that that culture might be going away. Above all else, I think the people who choose to work at Twitter generally didn't choose to work at the company because it was the easiest job or the best-paid job. They chose to work there because they believed in the impact that Twitter could have in the world. Twitter is one of the most consequential communication platforms in existence. And what happens on Twitter can move markets, can change elections, and it can impact the safety of millions of people around the world. And more than anything else, people are worried about what will happen, given Twitter's importance in the world, if there isn't a team left to do that type of work.

SHAPIRO: You describe your former colleagues as being heartbroken. And you very dispassionately kind of described what the consequences might be of this transition that Twitter is in. As dispassionate as you are in describing this, is it tough for you to watch what's happening right now?

ROTH: It is. I'm heartbroken and devastated by what I see happening at the company and what I see happening to decades of investment by professionals into building the service into what it is. But I think we need to have two parallel conversations. We can be upset and concerned about what's happening at Twitter specifically, but we would be remiss if we only had that conversation. We should think about what the trade-offs here are trying to strike a balance between three factors that are often in enormous tension with each other, and those are safety, speech and privacy. And the work of trying to find the right equilibrium there is difficult, if not completely impossible, and yet you still have to do it.

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SHAPIRO: That's Yoel Roth. Until November 10, he was Twitter's head of trust and safety.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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