Twitter in transphobia storm amid executive exits

EU officials, set to assess Twitter's content moderation function later this month, may be baffled.
5 June 2023

June could be a bumpy month for Twitter. Source: AFP

• Twitter loses two top content moderators in two days.
• Musk intervenes, removing “hateful content” warning from transphobic video.
• EU officials to assess Twitter’s moderation policies.

Trigger warning – images of anti-trans tweets included.

As digital trust and the nature of objective truth become increasingly hazy concepts – and yet increasingly vital commodities in the tech world, Twitter under Elon Musk has displayed its now legendary sense of timing, with the resignation of Ella Irwin, the company’s head of trust and safety – and the reported exit of A.J. Brown, Twitter’s head of brand safety and ad quality the following day.

So far, perhaps, so ordinary – people resign from top jobs in the tech industry with a regularity that if not exactly tedious is at least relatively predictable.

The decimation of the content moderators.

What’s more, in 2023, people resigning from Twitter has become almost comically commonplace.

Musk himself has described the organization before his takeover as “absurdly overstaffed,” and claimed that the loss of 80% of its previous workforce had left Twitter “working better than ever.”

That’s a statement belied by several outages since the staff numbers were decimated, and a detectable exodus of some high-profile Twitter evangelists since Musk saw fit to reinstate several controversial accounts that had previously been banned.

He explained his thinking to right-wing agitprop Fox News host, Tucker Carlson.

However commonplace people leaving their jobs at Twitter may feel by June 2023, the timing and the circumstances of Irwin and Brown’s departures could be particularly significant – even though neither executive has given either a reason or a context for their leaving.

Timing is everything.

Just weeks from now, Twitter is due to be examined by officials from the European Union on its handling of user content.

Given recent mega-fines handed to various parts of Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta empire by EU data privacy enforcers (over $1bn most recently), Twitter might well have wanted to get a clean bill of health from those examiners.

Losing two of your top content moderation officers just weeks before you have to endure the scrutiny of people who have made it clear that the size and influence of your social media platform holds no fear for them, and that they will fine you millions, or now even billions of dollars, might therefore be considered to be, at the very best, an unfortunate sequence of events.

But even that optimistic appraisal looks increasingly unlikely, as the company has found itself in the center of a culture war which – depending on how much coincidence you believe in – might have just happened to hit at exactly the same time as the departure of Irwin, but probably didn’t.

What Is a Woman?

The war began with conservative outlet The Daily Wire. It has a self-described “documentary” coming out soon entitled What Is a Woman?

As is to be expected from a conservative outlet, the “documentary” takes a conservative slant on gender and transgender issues. Where it runs into trouble is that it was made, according to presenter Matt Walsh, “in opposition to gender ideology.”

‘Gender ideology’ – for those new to the culture wars – is what people with anti-trans views call the reality of trans existence, the visibility and call for equality of trans people, and any social accommodations made to allow trans people to comfortably exist in a generally trans-exclusionary society.

In other words, something made specifically “in opposition to gender ideology” is made in opposition to both verifiable reality and the notion of acceptance of people with different life-journeys to those of the cisgender majority.

It is still technically possible to make a documentary on those terms and not fall into the territory of outright transphobia. It’s extraordinarily difficult, because the premise denies the lived experience of trans people, but it is just about possible, if you really believe there’s a) a debate to be had on the subject, and b) you tread very carefully.

It’s reported that the documentary contains at least two apparently deliberate instances of the misgendering of trans people. As such, it meets the agreed definition of transphobic content.

The Musk intervention – part 1.

What has any of this to do with Twitter, Musk, and the upcoming content investigation by the EU? When news of the upcoming documentary broke, Twitter’s content moderation team advised that it would be labelled as “hateful content.”

According to The Daily Wire, that was down to the two instances of misgendering, though it’s arguable that the whole concept of the piece might have been enough to get it flagged as hateful content under the existing Twitter reporting rules, despite what followed potentially rendering them meaningless.

Musk personally intervened on Thursday, June 1, saying that the labelling by the content moderation team was “a mistake by many people at Twitter,” and confirming that the “documentary” would be allowed to run without its “hateful content” label.

Ella Irwin, head of trust and safety, left the company the same day. Without explicit comment from either Irwin or Musk on the reasons behind her departure, it is technically impossible to draw reliable inferences from this fact.

The Musk intervention – part 2.

However, the following day, June 2, Musk doubled-down on his support of the documentary, pinning a tweet to the top of his account, saying “Every parent should watch this.”

Twitter boss promotes anti-trans "documentary."

The same day, he retweeted a story from Breitbart News that described anti-trans acts by various states as “protecting children from mutilation,” and highlighted President Biden’s opposition of those actions. Musk tweeted only the word “Insane” – seemingly referring to Biden’s pro-trans stance in his Pride month statement.

Twitter boss retweets Breitbart.

A.J. Brown is reported to have left the company on June 2.

Why does any of this matter? Well, naturally, it matters to trans Twitter users, who would be within their rights to regard these actions by the platform’s owner as the creation (or perpetuation) of an online environment innately hostile to their existence.

The timing and the fines.

But to return to the impending inspection by the EU, these incidents could hardly be timed more poorly if they’d been planned to blow up the company’s bottom line for the year.

The meeting with EU officials is set to determine whether Twitter is compliant with some fairly strict new content moderation rules to which “very large online platforms” will need to adhere if they’re to be allowed to operate within the EU.

It’s possible the new moderation rules will come into force as soon as August 2024 as part of the Digital Services Act.

Musk’s stewardship of Twitter throughout the course of late 2022 and 2023 has reportedly already caused the EU some significant concern over content moderation – he allowed some highly contentious accounts to be reactivated, and has generally driven the tone of the platform further to the right. His policy of paid-for verification has been seen as monetizing authenticity – and therefore destroying it.

On top of which, losing both his head of trust and safety and his head of brand safety and ad quality within the space of two days, personally revoking the standard on what constitutes hateful speech when it comes to anti-trans content, and then doubling-down on the questionable material with a pinned tweet and a supportive statement are all likely to alarm the EU officials when they visit Twitter’s HQ in San Francisco. The visit, it should be noted, is scheduled to take place during Pride month.

If Twitter faces a hostile examination, it won’t be its first – last month, the company withdrew from the EU’s code of conduct on disinformation, saying it felt it had “no alternative” but to do so.

Thierry Breton, a leading EU commissioner, was pointed in his response. “Obligations remain,” he said. “You can run but you can’t hide.”

EU officials may well feel similarly about the fitness for purpose of Twitter’s content moderation strategy – especially if the two posts remain unfilled by the time the assessment is made.

If Twitter is found to be noncompliant with the DSA rules, it could be fined up to 6% of its global annual revenue. That’s a fine Twitter desperately needs to avoid – but from which, to re-quote Breton, it would not be able to hide simply because it doesn’t want to pay.