Twitter Inc.’s new head of trust and safety said the platform is emphasizing moving swiftly to address problematic content, even if it means figuring out some specifics later.
“For now, I think we are biasing towards moving quickly and figuring out the details in some of these areas after,” said Ella Irwin, who joined Twitter in June and took the top job overseeing user content and safety policies in November.
This month, for instance, Elon Musk personally announced the suspension of musician Kanye West‘s account, after Mr. West, who legally goes by Ye, posted a tweet with a swastika and made other anti-Semitic comments on Twitter and elsewhere.
Asked whether Mr. West’s suspension was temporary or permanent, Ms. Irwin left the decision open. “I don’t know that we know the answer to that yet,” she said in an interview last week.
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Before buying Twitter in October, Mr. Musk suggested he would aim to limit its content moderation to allow users “to speak freely within the bounds of the law,” and try to avoid rules that went much further.
Mr. Musk has spent the past six weeks drawing and redrawing Twitter’s rules around speech and safety, including a decision to permanently ban users who impersonate others unless their accounts are marked as parody, and personally announcing the reinstatement of several previously suspended accounts including those of former President Donald Trump, the satire website the Babylon Bee, and comedian Kathy Griffin.
Moreover, Mr. Musk has used the platform to air grievances. This past weekend, Mr. Musk on Twitter disparaged a former Twitter executive; called for the prosecution of top U.S. government medical advisor Anthony Fauci; and criticized people who offer their pronouns without being asked.
Ms. Irwin said that in her view Twitter had moved too slowly in the past, and that Mr. Musk has told her team to give priority to safety and not worry about potential side effects like hurting user numbers. One area Mr. Musk is giving priority to is cracking down on child exploitation, including by increasing the use of automated reviews, she said.
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Before joining Twitter, Ms. Irwin was vice president of product focusing on consumer trust at cloud communications firm Twilio Inc. for more than two years. Prior to that, she was a director dealing with marketplace abuse at Amazon.com Inc. for about four years.
Twitter’s decision to suspend Mr. West’s account wasn’t an example of banning illegal speech but still made sense as an effort to avoid offensive content on the platform, according to people who study social media. Mr. Musk said that Mr. West was suspended for violating Twitter’s rules against “incitement to violence.”
Alan Rozenshtein, an associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, said that while Mr. West’s conduct has been “the worst,” the image Mr. West tweeted alone “does not even come remotely close to incitement under First Amendment law.” The First Amendment applies to speech restrictions by the government, not private companies.
Mr. Musk has been criticized for welcoming suspended accounts back to the platform.
“The return of extremists of all kinds to the platform has the potential to supercharge the spread of extremist content and disinformation,” the Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based advocacy group that aims to combat anti-Semitism, said in a Dec. 2 statement on its website.
Twitter also has been bedeviled by parody accounts, which proliferated after the platform last month rolled out—and then within two days paused—its revamped Twitter Blue verification service. Mr. Musk has since said that, when the service launches again, all subscribers’ accounts will be manually verified as authentic, calling such requirements “painful, but necessary.”
Mr. Musk has nodded to challenges, tweeting when Twitter Blue first rolled out last month, “Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.”
Twitter said Saturday that it was relaunching the upgraded Twitter Blue on Monday, after the service has been delayed several times in recent weeks. It will cost $8 a month if users subscribe via the web or $11 if they subscribe via Apple Inc.’s operating system.
Amid uncertainty about Twitter’s content moderation and a flurry of executive departures, many advertisers, the company’s main source of revenue, paused their spending. Mr. Musk laid off roughly half the staff last month, and hundreds or more have resigned since.
Ms. Irwin declined to specify the number of people remaining on Twitter’s trust and safety team and says the team is amply staffed.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, said he left the company last month after concluding his role wasn’t needed if the new Twitter leadership wasn’t going to listen to his team’s guidance. Mr. Roth said, for instance, that Mr. Musk ignored his team’s warnings about possible issues tied to the Twitter Blue rollout.
Under Mr. Musk’s ownership, Ms. Irwin said Twitter will rely more on automation for content moderation. “You cannot scale and you cannot achieve true consistency with just relying on humans,” she said. “In an ideal world, you’re using a combination of the two and you are leaning in heavily into automation.”
Recently, Mr. Musk has touted numbers showing that “impressions” of hate speech, or how many times such tweets have been viewed, have declined on the platform. Some researchers say they have tracked a rise in hate speech on Twitter, focusing on prevalence rather than impressions.
Ms. Irwin said Twitter is evaluating itself based on visibility, a strategy that Mr. Musk has described as freedom of speech versus freedom of reach. “If you were to tweet something that had some hateful slur in it, we may deamplify that tweet,” she said.
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“You’re allowed to say it, but we don’t have to give you the reach of getting that out to every user on our platform,” she said.
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