Twitter documents show scope of advertisers’ concerns about Musk plans

ADVERTISEMENT

Internal Twitter documents show scope of advertisers’ questions about Elon Musk’s policies

Twitter’s abrupt transformation under new owner Elon Musk has prompted an exodus of major advertisers from the service — and a barrage of questions for the site’s remaining sales staff.

Internal Twitter Slack messages reviewed by Grid show advertisers asking about the increase in hate speech on the platform, and the impacts of the site’s recent layoffs of most of its content moderation and product teams — including what impact that might have on data privacy.

Grid separately reviewed internal Twitter talking points on the matter, last updated Nov. 10, which include answers to questions such as “Has the platform become more toxic?” and whether the platform is just an extension of its new owner, Musk, who has used his account to spar with regulators, Twitter employees and the public since taking control of Twitter on Oct. 28.

“To be broadly accepted, Twitter as a platform must be neutral — it cannot be an extension of Elon,” said the text of the document shared with Grid, which notes that the talking points are set to be updated on Tuesday.

ADVERTISEMENT

Whether Musk shares this sentiment remains to be seen. Twitter, whose communications team was decimated during the layoffs, has not yet responded to a request for comment.

In the meantime, reports continue to emerge of major advertisers freezing their spending on Twitter or leaving the platform entirely. The largest media buyer in the world rates Twitter a “high risk” platform, and companies such as Apple and McDonald’s are being told they should pause any ad buys. Luxury brand Balenciaga and theatrical guidebook Playbill are among the recent brands to quit the platform entirely.

What advertisers want to know

Advertisers have been spooked by Musk’s freewheeling approach to tweeting, the swift and massive layoffs of large chunks of Twitter’s staff and contract workers, and what all this means for their businesses.

In a long Twitter Space with advertisers on Nov. 9, Musk sought to alleviate their concerns — emphasizing Twitter’s neutrality and its commitment to keeping toxic content such as hate speech off the platform.

The next day, Yoel Roth, the head of trust and safety at Twitter, resigned, along with Twitter’s top ad executive. The talking points document, dated that same day, repeatedly points to previous tweets from Roth as evidence that Twitter is continuing to enforce existing content moderation standards.

ADVERTISEMENT

Advertisers are concerned with the layoffs’ effects on content moderation, but also with regard to how they’ve hit Twitter’s sales team. The internal talking points don’t exactly paint a rosy picture.

“The reduction in force impacted 25% of the sales team while the broader Twitter team reduced force by 50%,” reads the document. “The decision to scale back our presence in select geographies contributed significantly to the sales reductions.”

It goes on to say that in terms of content moderation, “automated detection plays an increasingly important role in eliminating abuse.” But such automated processes often require human oversight to make sure they correctly account for context.

In response to questions about whether the company will be less diverse after the layoffs, the talking points state “TBD / No current comment.”

As background on the question of diversity, staffers are informed that data on the changes in U.S. employee representation are not yet final, and Twitter may not ultimately disclose them publicly.

“There were larger-than-average reductions in more diverse teams (Marketing/Comms and People) but there were also larger-than-average reductions in bigger and less diverse teams (Goldbird/Bluebird/Redbird),” reads the document. “The upshot may be that Twitter is slightly more diverse or as diverse as it was on a US % basis, but this insight is pending.”

Other major questions are left unanswered — including “What is the new leadership structure at Twitter?” (“TBD”) and “How do you rank Twitter’s brand safety measure vs. competitors?” (“No current comment”).

Twitter Blue (it)

One section of the document addresses advertisers’ concerns over Twitter’s confusing launch of Twitter Blue subscriptions as a means of verification — in short, as confirmed by Musk on the Twitter Space with advertisers, brands and users would both have to pay $8 a month to be verified. In doing so, Twitter opened up the door for anyone with $8 to be verified, even if they were pretending to be a brand, and chaos predictably ensued.

Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly potentially lost millions of dollars in stock price when a spoof account bearing its name and logo — and boasting a blue check through Twitter Blue — went viral for tweeting “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” Twitter removed the tweet; other impersonators soon followed.

The incident has highlighted confusion about what Twitter’s blue check — long a mark of verified identity — means now that the company is marketing it to the public.


ADVERTISEMENT

The talking points document says that companies will not have to pay $8 a month to keep their previous verification status — contrary to Musk’s prior claims — and that Twitter has extended its new “official” label (signified by a gray check mark) to brands.

The document directs Twitter staffers to tell advertisers that “these examples [of impersonation] have been extremely rare, but we are suspending the accounts quickly (and not refunding the subscriptions, which reduces the incentive to re-offend).” It continues: “We anticipated early efforts like this from bad actors, and we are adapting dynamically to prevent and detect them. Further, as Elon tweeted, accounts engaged in parody impersonation must include ‘parody’ in their display name, not just in their bio.”

“Maintain perspective”

Concerns around Twitter’s mass layoffs and their effects on content moderation with respect to hate speech prompted dozens of civil rights groups to lobby advertisers to stop buying ads on Twitter.

In early November, Musk said these activist groups were causing a “massive drop in ad revenue” and claimed that they were “destroying free speech in America.”

The talking points document frames the matter somewhat differently: “~99.9% of Twitter users haven’t tweeted anything about boycotting the platform. We encourage advertisers to maintain perspective,” it said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nora Benavidez, a senior counsel and the director of digital justice and civil rights at the media advocacy group Free Press, which is part of the coalition asking advertisers to step away from Twitter, said that the talking points show how little Musk understands about running a social media platform.

The points also fly in the face of steps Musk has actually taken, noted Benavidez.

“The entire document reads like a teenager’s assignment they forgot to do the night before and wrote quickly on the way to school in the morning,” she said.

And even among Twitter staff that remained, morale is starting sag as they continue to learn of layoffs via tweet.

“Morale is low,” said one Twitter source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “I can’t wait to quit.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Benjamin Powers
    Benjamin Powers

    Technology Reporter

    Benjamin Powers is a technology reporter for Grid where he explores the interconnection of technology and privacy within major stories.