Twitter's team focused on ethics rushed to publish research papers before Elon Musk's takeover fearing he would lay them off, report says

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Twitter's team focused on ethics rushed to publish research papers before Elon Musk's takeover fearing he would lay them off, report says
Elon Musk.Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images
  • Twitter's AI ethics team hurriedly published studies in the weeks before Elon Musk's takeover, Wired reported.
  • The team feared "the runway would shut down when the Elon jumbo jet landed," one ex-staffer told Wired.
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Twitter staff working on its ethics and moderation team were so concerned about Elon Musk's takeover that they rushed to publish a number of research papers before his arrival, fearing they would be laid-off, according to Wired.

Six former Twitter employees spoke to Wired about the decision of the company's machine learning ethics, transparency, and accountability team — known as META — to hurry to share internal studies on disinformation and AI ethics because of fears Musk would cut the team.

"We knew the runway would shut down when the Elon jumbo jet landed," one former employee on the team, who wished to remain anonymous through fear of retribution, told Wired. "We knew we needed to do this before the acquisition closed. We can stick a flag in the ground and say it exists."

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"We were rightfully worried about what this leadership change would entail," Rumman Chowdhury, who was engineering director on the team, told Wired.

About a week after Musk took charge of Twitter, all but one of the META team were fired, as Gizmodo reported based on tweets from the staffers. Three weeks before the takeover, the team published a study on bias in moderation through an open-access service – which meant they didn't have to wait for it to be peer-reviewed.

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Employees told Wired that several more papers on misinformation and algorithms were quickly published too around the time of the takeover. The last remaining member of the team quit the company later in November, per Wired.

Musk has often warned about the dangers of AI, calling it "a rare case where I think we need to be proactive in regulation, instead of reactive."

Despite having no team to focus on the ethics of AI, Twitter's head of trust and safety told Reuters in December it would rely more on AI to identify harmful content going forward.

The decision to lay off the META team — as well as staffers involved with human rights work — prompted the UN's human rights commissioner to write to Musk in November.

"Research is essential to understand better the impact of social media on our societies," Volker Türk said in the letter.

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Since the world's second-richest person took over the company, Twitter's workforce has been dramatically reduced – from over 7,000 to 2,300. Musk originally planned to lay off half the employees, but that proportion is now closer to two-thirds.

As one person familiar with Twitter's current workings told Insider's Kali Hays: "You just have to go to work every day knowing that it could be your last and be fine with that."

Twitter did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

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