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The former Head of Trust and Safety at Twitter on working for CEO Elon Musk

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As Twitter's head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth helped make the platform what it is today. When Elon Musk bought Twitter, he stayed at first. But after a couple weeks, he abruptly resigned. Today Roth agreed to talk to us, and I asked why he left.

YOEL ROTH: Months before the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, I wrote down a series of red lines and limits. And my goal in doing this was to avoid emotional decision-making in the moments after the acquisition. Some of the limits that I wrote down were pretty obvious in retrospect. They were things like, I won't break the law or I won't lie publicly on anybody's behalf. But one of the ones that ended up being the most important to me was that I'll stay so long as decisions at Twitter are made in a procedurally just way.

What I meant was if the process by which we make decisions at Twitter is based in our policies and our principles and it takes into account systematic analysis of all of the risks and possible outcomes of those decisions, then I can stay and work towards making those decisions. What matters to me ultimately is not the decision but how the decision is made. And for me, I wouldn't want to be a part of undermining it with capricious decision-making. And unfortunately, that's what happened.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying that Elon Musk made decisions on an arbitrary and capricious basis without consulting a rulebook?

ROTH: That's what we've started to see happen at the company, particularly since my departure. We've seen it with the abrupt reinstatement of a number of accounts on Twitter, including the account of the former president. And we've also seen sort of quick tweet-length announcements of various rule changes or supposed rule changes; things like banning impersonation, which was already banned. Not all of these impulsive changes were necessarily harmful or even wrong, but the manner in which they were made - just tweeting it into existence - is at odds with a principled system of governance that tries to think through what could happen, what could go wrong, how should we make these choices?

SHAPIRO: What was Elon Musk like to work for in those early days? And it feels like we have these two contrasting images of, on the one hand, the richest man in the world who is the CEO of these major companies, and on the other hand, this person who is acting very impulsively, some would say destructively, laying people off, more than half the staff at one blow. What was he actually like to work with?

ROTH: He operates a lot like other business executives do, which is if you put good information in front of him and make recommendations and ask him to evaluate the facts of an issue, he does so quite thoughtfully. I would explain the rules. I would explain the factors influencing the situation. And I would suggest a course of action that was aligned with our policies. He would listen to and oftentimes accept that approach.

A lot of the public discussion of Elon Musk sets him up as a larger-than-life character. And certainly the world's richest person is almost definitionally larger than life. But those caricatures weren't true to my experience with him.

SHAPIRO: So how do you reconcile his later decision to have a user poll about whether to allow Donald Trump back on the platform, which seems like the definition of capricious?

ROTH: An old phrase that was a product development mantra at Facebook that I think has been attributed to Mark Zuckerberg is move fast and break things. Mr. Musk is introducing a culture of moving quickly and, unfortunately, breaking things as a result. And I think the 24-hour polls to make massive platform governance decisions are an example of something that enables quick decision-making, but I'm not convinced that it enables rigorous decision-making.

SHAPIRO: That's Yoel Roth, who was at Twitter for almost eight years as head of trust and safety. In another part of the show, he describes where the platform might be headed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
Mallika Seshadri
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.