When I worked at Twitter, I led the team that placed a fact-checking label on one of Donald Trump’s tweets for the first time. Following the violence of Jan. 6, I helped make the call to ban his account from Twitter altogether. Nothing prepared me for what would happen next.
Backed by fans on social media, Mr. Trump publicly attacked me. Two years later, following his acquisition of Twitter and after I resigned my role as the company’s head of trust and safety, Elon Musk added fuel to the fire. I’ve lived with armed guards outside my home and have had to upend my family, go into hiding for months and repeatedly move.
This isn’t a story I relish revisiting. But I’ve learned that what happened to me wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t just personal vindictiveness or “cancel culture.” It was a strategy — one that affects not just targeted individuals like me, but all of us, as it is rapidly changing what we see online.
Private individuals — from academic researchers to employees of tech companies — are increasingly the targets of lawsuits, congressional hearings and vicious online attacks. These efforts, staged largely by the right, are having their desired effect: Universities are cutting back on efforts to quantify abusive and misleading information spreading online. Social media companies are shying away from making the kind of difficult decisions my team did when we intervened against Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Platforms had finally begun taking these risks seriously only after the 2016 election. Now, faced with the prospect of disproportionate attacks on their employees, companies seem increasingly reluctant to make controversial decisions, letting misinformation and abuse fester in order to avoid provoking public retaliation…..
on Dec. 6, four days after the first Twitter Files release, I was asked to appear at a congressional hearing focused on the files and Twitter’s alleged censorship. In that hearing, members of Congress held up oversize posters of my years-old tweets and asked me under oath whether I still held those opinions. (To the extent the carelessly tweeted jokes could be taken as my actual opinions, I don’t.) Ms. Greene said on Fox News that I had “some very disturbing views about minors and child porn” and that I “allowed child porn to proliferate on Twitter,” warping Mr. Musk’s lies even further (and also extending their reach). Inundated with threats, and with no real options to push back or protect ourselves, my husband and I had to sell our home and move.
Academia has become the latest target of these campaigns to undermine online safety efforts. Researchers working to understand and address the spread of online misinformation have increasingly become subjects of partisan attacks; the universities they’re affiliated with have become embroiled in lawsuits, burdensome public record requests and congressional proceedings. Facing seven-figure legal bills, even some of the largest and best-funded university labs have said they may have to abandon ship. Others targeted have elected to change their research focus based on the volume of harassment.
Bit by bit, hearing by hearing, these campaigns are systematically eroding hard-won improvements in the safety and integrity of online platforms — with the individuals doing this work bearing the most direct costs.
Tech platforms are retreating from their efforts to protect election security and slow the spread of online disinformation. Amid a broader climate of belt-tightening, companies have pulled back especially hard on their trust and safety efforts. As they face mounting pressure from a hostile Congress, these choices are as rational as they are dangerous.
Yoel Roth is one of the panelists at our 9/26 event for the Safeguarding Democracy Project.