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Twitter layoffs begin, sparking a lawsuit and backlash

FILE - A receptionist works in the lobby of the building that houses the Twitter office in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Employees were bracing for widespread layoffs at Twitter Friday, Nov. 4, as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the social platform. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
FILE - A receptionist works in the lobby of the building that houses the Twitter office in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Employees were bracing for widespread layoffs at Twitter Friday, Nov. 4, as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the social platform. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Updated November 4, 2022 at 9:38 PM ET

Long-dreaded layoffs are finally happening at Twitter, which has been owned by billionaire Elon Musk for just over a week. They have sparked a lawsuit from employees and a call for advertisers to boycott.

About 50% of the staff was cut company-wide, according to a tweet from Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of safety and integrity, the division responsible for monitoring tweets for violence, hate and other banned material.

"Twitter's strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged," Musk tweeted Friday afternoon. He also said laid-off employees got three months of severance pay.

Jessica González, CEO of Free Press, which is part of the #StopToxicTwitter coalition, said she and leaders of more than 40 other groups met with Musk earlier this week.

"He promised to retain and enforce the election-integrity measures that were on Twitter's books before his takeover. With today's mass layoffs, it is clear that his actions betray his words," González said.

She worried Musk was dismantling Twitter's investment in fact checking, moderators and policy, which could allow more dangerous disinformation to spread, especially so close to Election Day.

"Twitter was already a hellscape before Musk took over. His actions in the past week will only make it worse," González said.

Roth tweeted that about 15% of his staff was laid off, with front-line moderation staff least affected.

"With early voting underway in the US, our efforts on election integrity — including harmful misinformation that can suppress the vote and combatting state-backed information operations — remain a top priority," he wrote on Twitter.

The #StopToxicTwitter coalition is now calling on advertisers to boycott Twitter. Several major advertisers have suspended advertising on Twitter since Musk took over last week, including General Motors and Pfizer. Nearly all of Twitter's revenue comes from ads.

Employees sue Musk over lack of notice for firings

A handful of employees moved quickly to file a class action lawsuit Thursday in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of Twitter workers.

The case was filed preemptively, so Twitter's workers wouldn't be taken advantage of and sign away their rights, said the lead attorney on the case, Shannon Liss-Riordan.

"There's a lot of concern going on around Twitter employees about what would happen today when reportedly half the workforce would be let go," she said.

The case alleges that Twitter is letting go of staff without adequate notice, in violation of California and federal employment law. The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification act, or WARN, requires at least a 60-day notice before conducting mass layoffs.

Liss-Riordan said employees learned on Friday they would get three months' severance, which Musk later confirmed in a tweet.

Twitter employees use the platform to say goodbye with #LoveWhereYouWorked

Employees had been told to stay home on Friday and wait for an email about the future of their jobs. They tracked news from their colleagues under the hashtag #LoveWhereYouWorked.

They expressed gratitude to their teams and bosses, grieved for the company culture they enjoyed, and worried about colleagues who might lose health insurance or work visas.

Other Twitter users chimed in, calling Twitter employees "government stooges" and criticizing content moderation and policy decisions under the company's previous leadership.

Musk has long complained about the size of Twitter's staff, which was about 7,500. The company had ballooned in recent years, even as it struggled financially.

Musk fired many of Twitter's top executives last week, including its CEO, chief financial officer and top lawyers. He also dissolved its board.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :


Elon Musk owns Twitter now, and he has followed through on his pledge to radically slim down the social media company. Staffers found out today whether they still have jobs or not. The layoffs prompted a swift response, a class-action lawsuit from employees - also, calls for advertisers to boycott.

NPR's Raquel Maria Dillon joins me. Hey there.


KELLY: Hi. So big picture, why is Elon Musk doing this? - the layoffs, I mean.

DILLON: He might be the richest person in the world on paper, but in order to buy this company, he borrowed about $12.5 billion. He has to pay all that off at the rate of about a billion a year. So dramatically reducing the staff is one way to cut costs, which is what he badly needs. For months, Musk has been complaining that the company is overstaffed, and as soon as he took over, he fired all the executives, dissolved the board of directors. Now he's looking for ways that Twitter can make money, like charging for verified accounts, for example. He says it'll soon cost $8 a month for the coveted blue checkmark.

KELLY: Yeah. What has been the reaction to his early moves?

DILLON: We should say we don't know exactly how many people lost their jobs or in what departments. A memo went out last night by email telling everyone to stay home today; just check your email to find out your fate. Twitter employees are commiserating on Twitter, of course, expressing gratitude and encouragement and concern about their health insurance. On the other hand, there are a bunch of Twitter users celebrating the fact that these people lost their jobs, calling them government stooges who are afraid of open debate 'cause they disagree with policies put in place by Twitter's previous leadership.

Also yesterday, a handful of employees filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of failing to give enough notice of the mass layoffs. Under California law, employers have to give at least 60 days' notice. I talked to the lawyer representing these employees today, and she told me the preemptive case might be working 'cause at least some of the staffers got severance pay through January.

KELLY: OK. So that's how things are going for Twitter staff. What about for the platform itself? Is it - it's early days, but what do we know about how all this is playing for Twitter?

DILLON: Right, just a few days before the midterms.

KELLY: Yeah.

DILLON: Activists are very worried that there is no one left at Twitter to monitor and block disinformation or dangerous content. They say it opens up the possibility that Twitter could turn into a free-for-all, with false voting information, bad election results. Leaders from those groups also met with Elon Musk this week and said it was a productive conversation. He listened and promised that Twitter would stick with its existing policies. Jessica Gonzalez from Free Press says his actions, though, point in a very different direction.

JESSICA GONZALEZ: When you layoff reportedly 50% of your staff, including teams who are in charge of actually tracking, monitoring and enforcing content moderation rules, that necessarily means that content moderation has changed.

DILLON: These civil rights groups, critics of Big Tech and media watchdogs are now calling on advertisers to boycott Twitter, warning them that their brands might land next to hateful or harassing content. Musk tweeted today that Twitter has seen a massive drop in revenue and blamed this activist pressure on advertisers. He reiterated that nothing has changed with content moderation. He said, quote, "we did everything we could to appease the activists." And some big brands have already pulled their ads, at least for now. We're talking General Motors, Audi, Pfizer. There may be more to come.

KELLY: NPR's Raquel Maria Dillon, thanks.

DILLON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.