Elon Musk’s $44bn acquisition of Twitter on 27 October 2022 promised the biggest shake up since the company was founded in 2006.
The former world’s richest man was keen to take on the project after becoming disillusioned by the site’s perceived biases and content moderation policy.
He said he wanted to build a ‘common digital town square’ where all voices could be heard and debated in a healthy way.
Changes to personnel and features, and the release of the “Twitter Files” took the site in a radical new direction within a matter of weeks.
But Twitter’s revolution became a bloodbath in the process, cutting staff by 80% to hone in on the new direction, and then losing users and advertisers as a lean team struggled to manage disinformation, trolling and impersonation online.
“Twitter 2.0” seems to have been hamstrung by problems from the start.
As the Tesla and SpaceX founder comes to mark half a year with the site, MailOnline looks at the highs and lows of Musk’s Twitter revolution.
Elon Musk bought Twitter in October and within days had taken it in a radical new direction
Twitter’s San Francisco HQ in December 2022, a month after half the workforce was laid off
Musk arrives at Twitter HQ in October with a sink after purchasing the company. The joke plays on an internet meme ‘let that sink in’, which features a sink next to an open door. Musk often references popular culture. In April he changed the Twitter logo to doge, another meme
The staffing crisis
Twitter had ‘just under 8,000’ staff worldwide when Elon Musk took over in October 2022. ‘We’re about 1,500 right now,’ he said in an interview with the BBC in April.
From the start, Musk sought revolution over reform. In April, after becoming the largest shareholder, he declined to join the company’s board of directors. Then-CEO Parag Agrawal said this was ‘for the best’. Musk bought Twitter for $44bn and on day two let Agrawal go, along with CFO Ned Segal and top counsel Vijaya Gadde.
He then made himself the new CEO and dropped the board of directors.
Within days, 3,700 staff had been laid off. They found out when they were unable to log in to their emails and work computers. Musk defended the layoffs saying he had no choice when the company was losing $4mn a day.
Some embraced the end of the Old Regime and found new roles for themselves. Esther Crawford was pictured in early November in a sleeping bag on the office floor. She played a key role as a project manager leading on Twitter’s new verification system.
Still, the guillotine saw regular use as Musk doubled down on the changes to the site’s direction. At the end of February, another 200 employees were laid off, including product managers, data scientists and engineers.
Crawford was among those who discovered they had been laid off when, again, unable to log in to their work laptops and email accounts. Over the weekend, Musk posted on Twitter (not aimed directly at anybody): ‘Hope you have a good Sunday. First day of the rest of your life.’
Musk said the cuts were needed to rein in expenditure and keep the company functional and efficient. He said laying people off is ‘no fun at all. It’s painful. [But] the company’s either going to go bankrupt… if we do not cut costs immediately… This is not a caring, uncaring situation. If the whole ship sinks then nobody’s got a job.’
But some insiders still worry the cuts have affected their ability to do their jobs. Twitter suffered four outages in February alone – compared to nine in all of 2022.
Staff also say that due to cuts and changes to features, they can no longer protect users from trolling and child sexual exploitation, nor the disinformation Twitter 2.0 set out to combat. ‘Nobody’s taking care’ of the work around safety measures now, an engineer told the BBC in March.
Musk contested some of these claims in the rare media interview with in April, saying there was less misinformation on the site since the takeover, helped by efforts to delete automated accounts.
Former CEO Parag Agrawal (left) and CFO Ned Segal (right) were fired by Musk on his first day
Esther Crawford seen sleeping on the office floor in November, let go in February 2023
The launch of ‘extremely hardcore’ Twitter 2.0
Those who survived the cuts in November were soon told – in an email in the middle of the night – that they would have to get used to “Twitter 2.0” and the new ‘extremely hardcore’ way of working – or leave.
Remote work was dropped and staff moved back to the office. Musk reneged when more left than expected. The company also asked dozens to come back to work on new products after apparently firing them ‘by mistake’.
So called “days of rest” were also dropped. Staff reported working longer hours, apparently up to 12-hours and seven days a week. Managers slept at the office on weekends. In April, Musk admitted he also sleeps in the office sometimes, on a couch in the library.
Twitter’s culture of ‘transparency’ was said to have died. Open calendars were closed. Documents were locked. Permissions were revoked. When people were laid off, they were left wondering for days whether they still had a job, unable to reach HR.
One member of staff said in March: ‘It’s a pressure cooker. There are no guidelines. There’s no respect. There’s absolutely zero transparency. It’s awful.’
Writing in The Atlantic, former Machine Learning, Ethics Transparency and Accountability (META) engineering director Rumman Chowdhury said: ‘From the announcement of Musk’s bid to the day he walked into the office holding a sink, I watched, horrified, as he slowly killed Twitter’s culture.
‘Debate and constructive dissent was stifled on Slack, leaders accepted their fate or quietly resigned, and Twitter slowly shifted from being a company that cared about the people on the platform to a company that only cares about.’
Chowdhury said Twitter 2.0 was defined by ‘feverish cost-cutting, lax content moderation’ and ‘the abandonment of important features such as blocklists’. He said he worried that ignoring the ‘nuanced issue of algorithmic oversight’ – with Musk reportedly pushing his tweets above all others – Twitter would end up adding to issues of bias, misinformation and contributing to ‘a volatile global political and social climate’.
Twitter 2.0 prompted more to leave. A further 1,200 voluntarily resigned in November, leading the temporary closure of offices.
#RIPTwitter started trending on the site.
Musk in January after testifying regarding a lawsuit that saw investors sue Tesla and Musk over 2018 tweets saying he would take Tesla private with funding he was found not to have secured
Staff cuts were meant to rein in expenses. Those who stayed looked to create new profitable features, such as Twitter Blue, which promised to move the site closer to Musk’s town square vision.
But from the outside, the revolution was getting out of hand. Internal conflicts were aired in public. The new direction saw unfinished features tested on the main site and recalled within hours when they needed tinkering with.
As the first staff were cut, so the first users started to leave. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, wrote on 29 October: ‘Not hanging around for whatever Elon has planned. Bye.’ – and hasn’t posted since.
Grammy winner Toni Braxton wrote the same day: ‘I’m shocked and appalled at some of the “free speech” I’ve seen on this platform since its acquisition.
‘Hate speech under the veil of “free speech” is unacceptable; therefore I am choosing to stay off Twitter as it is no longer a safe space for myself, my sons and other POC.’
If users were leaving, advertisers had less reason to stay – further hurting cash flow.
Apparently concerned that the changes were enabling a rise in hate speech on the platform, brands including General Motors, United Airlines and General Mills paused buying ads on Twitter.
Then, Chevrolet, Chipotle, Ford and Jeep paused ads or abandoned the platform entirely. Apple pulled its Twitter ads. By the end of November, the losses in advertising were estimated to have cost the site about $2bn in revenue. The company has a revenue of just over $5bn.
In January, Musk reportedly tried to raise $3bn by selling off shares. The Journal reported potential investors were put off by Twitter’s financial performance. Around the same time, the company started to auction off coffee makers and statues, The Verge claimed, after falling behind on office rent payments.
Twitter Blue would have to work.
Louise Read, founder of SaaS MRKTING, explained to MailOnline: ‘Given the reduction in the sales force that would have been responsible for advertising, it’s likely [Musk] will be looking to expand subscription-based offerings.
‘Twitter already has Twitter Blue which allows users to pay for a blue tick associated with their account, but I would expect to also see the introduction of a premium subscription without ads.’
Efforts were made to keep advertisers enticed. A new feature listed how many times a tweet had been seen, complementing engagement. In February, Twitter ran a fire sale for Super Bowl ads to win back advertisers.
Louise Read added: ‘This short-sighted approach is going to lose the few companies who are actually using Twitter for advertising, and put off the rest. It screams desperation in what is already clearly a declining company.
‘As a marketer, protecting your brand is paramount… Businesses with that type of advertising spend will be questioning whether they even want to be seen on advertising platforms like Twitter.
‘I’m surprised anyone is even advertising on Twitter given the rapid rise in discriminative tweets, hate groups and terrorist groups joining the platform since Musk took over.
‘Given that Twitter’s business model solely relies on advertising reducing their revenue generating teams, that over years have built real relationships with key ad spenders, it’s telling that this company is haemorrhaging funds and unsurprising that they reportedly have $13bn of debt.’
Read was the former marketing lead for Klaviyo, growing the marketing function from scratch to a $10.1bn valuation.
Chief customer officer Sarah Personette, who was in charge of Twitter’s advertising sales, said she had resigned from the top role the day after Musk took charge. She did not say why
‘Citizen journalism’ advocate Musk pictured at the Super Bowl this year with Rupert Murdoch
The Blue Tick
Twitter verification once meant authenticity. A little blue tick icon was attached to the accounts of public figures or companies to deter impersonators.
This did not fit Musk’s vision. He heralded the benefits of “citizen journalism” and would offer the coveted label to all for just $8 per month.
Changing verification saw an apparent rise in impersonations on the site. Some were clearly absurd or satirical. A Coca Cola impersonator wrote: ‘If this gets 1000 retweets we will put the cocaine back in Coca Cola.’
Others, more ambiguous, had real consequences. An account pretending to be pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company wrote: ‘We are excited to announce insulin is free now’, causing LLY stock to fall 4.5% in a matter of hours.
Lockheed Martin lost more than $7bn and faced some awkward questions after a fake account announced the company would stop sending arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel.
Scores of notable people left Twitter in the run up to Christmas. Rolling Stone compiled a list of those who had left before the year was up, including actor Stephen Fry (who said on his website Twitter was like a ‘room [that] had started to smell. Really quite bad), Whoopi Goldberg, Gigi Hadid (branding it a ‘cesspool of hate’), Jack White and Alex Winter.
Moby said the site had ‘become a cesspool of racism, anti-Semitism, disinformation, and dimwitted alt-right hate’ before leaving in November.
Elton John said in December he had decided to ‘no longer use Twitter, given their recent change in policy which will allow misinformation to go unchecked.’
Twitter eventually pulled the paid Twitter Blue service, and then put it back. An ‘Official’ label was added, and then pulled hours later. There were threats to remove ‘legacy’ verification afforded to public figures, and when users started linking to their other social media accounts Musk said he would ban accounts that promoted other platforms. This, too, was changed when the public protested.
Twitter found a partial solution, giving badges of different colors to businesses and government entities. But the flagship policy of Twitter 2.0 that had promised to recoup lost advertising revenues instead alienated more users and organizations.
On 20 April – a date reportedly chosen for its ties to marijuana culture – Musk lit the bonfire of Blue ticks – and then gave some back for users with more than 1mn followers. This included mistakenly giving ticks to celebrities who had died, falsely claiming they had paid for Twitter Blue.
Twitter say they are working on an updated process for new accounts to minimize impersonation.
Actor Whoopi Goldberg was among the celebrities who left Twitter, saying on The View in November ‘I just feel like it’s so messy, and I’m tired of now having had certain kinds of attitudes blocked, and now they’re back on.’
Actor Stephen Fry was a popular figure with 12.3mn followers before leaving after the takeover
From the start, Musk challenged Twitter to be more free and open. In the first place, the decision to buy up shares in the site followed his March 2022 poll, asking users whether they believed the site ‘rigorously adhered’ to free speech. 70% said no.
A month later, after becoming the largest shareholder, he wrote: ‘I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means‘.
And then again in November, after buying the site, he added: ‘My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk.’
But then, user Jack Sweeney, 20, was banned for his account tracking Musk’s jet after the CEO said a ‘stalker’ bothered his son. Other accounts reporting real-time locations were shut down, which journalists pushed back on noting the importance of publicly available flight data in reporting on Flight MH370, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and US aid to Ukraine.
The decision in December to ban tech journalists who had shared Musk’s location was met with the threat of sanctions from the EU, judging it a breach of the Media Freedom Act. At the same time, Musk was seen to threaten to remove accounts that promoted other social media platforms as users started to move to sites like Mastodon. This, too, was widely criticized by content creators reliant on Twitter to promote their channels. Twitter faced losing another significant demographic.
Others users were brought back. Andrew Tate lasted a little over a month. The former kickboxer was soon ridiculed for taking aim at Greta Thunberg on Twitter, and was fully in the public spotlight as a result when Romanian authorities detained him on suspicion of human trafficking, rape and forming an organized crime group.
The whole affair tested Twitter’s commitment to free speech. The introduction of a new ‘reader context‘ feature did – notably – allow users to pick up on misinformation around the Tate saga and flag it for other users.
Ye West was also added back to Twitter after having his account restricted for an anti-semitic tweet. Within days, Musk banned him again for incitement to violence after he shared an image of a swastika over the Star of David.
The first Twitter had kept these users offline. Twitter 2.0 allowed to speak and face the consequences. Kanye’s audience withered after his comments. Andrew Tate’s has continued to grow.
Donald Trump was also given his account back after a polling of users. ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei,’ Musk tweeted when 51.8% of users voted to reinstate the former President – ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’.
A month later he polled users again, asking whether he should step down. 57.5% of 17 million users said yes. Musk said he would resign as CEO when he found someone to take over. In April, he claimed he had already stepped down, and that his dog was now in charge – drawing comparisons on Twitter to the ‘mad’ Emperor Caligula who promised to appoint his horse as consul.
Elon Musk reinstated Donald Trump after polling 15 million users on the social network
Caligula would have blushed: Musk claimed in April he had made his dog the new Twitter CEO
The Twitter Files
Twitter 2.0 had taken the site in a radically new direction – but away from what? In December, as part of the new system of openness, Musk shared with freelance journalists a number of internal Twitter files – the so-called Twitter Files – revealing controversial decisions made before October.
Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger were among those who reported the state of Twitter before the takeover. It was revealed that Twitter had sought to moderate some conservative views, stories and people on the site. A ‘Trends Blacklist’ also appeared to censor health policy experts who had opposed the lockdowns.
Since then, Rep Nancy Mace quizzed Vijaya Gadde at the Oversight Hearing on protecting speech from government interference and social media bias on 8 February. She said: ‘Why do you think that you or anyone else at Twitter had the medical expertise to censor a doctor’s expert opinion?’
Gadde said the policies regarding Covid were designed to ‘protect individuals’.
She later admitted, ‘we received legal demands to remove content from the platform from the US government and governments around the world.’
Mace replied: ‘Thank God for Matt Taibbi. Thank God for Elon Musk for allowing to show us… that Twitter was basically a subsidiary of the FBI, censoring real medical voices with real medical expertise that put real Americans lives in danger because they didn’t have that information.’
Shellenberger also reported that the story of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, apparently containing a corruption scandal, had been suppressed by the FBI, exerting influence over Twitter.
Leaks showed $3.5mn of taxpayers’ money had been used for ‘processing requests’ to Twitter staff as the FBI sought to ban certain accounts.
It was a damning blow to the Twitter of old – from its new owner, no less.
The Twitter Files saw journalists share insider information from pre-Musk Twitter. Shellenberger reported the FBI had influenced Twitter to censor the Hunter Biden laptop story
Elon Musk tweets on 28 October 2022, the day after announcing he had bought the company
Elon Musk’s ambitious bid to create a free and open marketplace of ideas online has been wrought with difficulties from the start.
The visionary new CEO has opened up the platform to feedback and made difficult decisions to take the platform in the new direction.
In recent interviews he has admitted mistakes, and has pushed through changes quickly when pressed.
The Twitter Files have exposed dangerous trends and started conversations on the role of scope of social media giants.
But staff warn the site is now unable to uphold the principles Musk has celebrated from the beginning.
Since October, Twitter has struggled to keep users who do not feel safe. Appeals to ‘freedom of speech’ have sometimes had dangerous results and other times been brushed off.
The result is that advertisers have also left, further thinning the resources there to support the team that keeps the site in check.
Six months on, Twitter’s revolution has seen the company entirely transform its business model, user base and staff. What this means for the site – and for its competitors – is to be seen.
MailOnline approached Twitter for comment and received an automated reply… the poo emoji.