The day after Elon Musk closed his deal to buy Twitter, the company’s Seattle office held a Halloween party for employees and their children. Rebecca Scott Thein dressed in bright green to play an alien to her daughter’s Buzz Lightyear. Thein, whose job at Twitter (now X) was to help the platform plan for and navigate elections, was driving to the party when an urgent call came in. On the other end of the phone was a member of Twitter’s policy team. The company had just received a “consent decree”—essentially, a threat of legal action—in Brazil, which was about to hold runoffs for highly polarized presidential and gubernatorial elections.
An avowed free speech absolutist, Musk had already publicly announced that he would pare back content moderation—the systems and teams that Twitter had in place to deal with problematic material on its platform. The problem was, Twitter had already committed to doing something about the amount of election-related misinformation in Brazil. The Brazilian authorities wanted Twitter to stand by its promises. If it didn’t comply, the policy team member told her, the Brazilian authorities could fine the company or shut off the platform—which had more than 19 million users in the country. Something needed to be done, and quickly.
Thein recalls arriving at an office of listless employees—many playing foosball and lounging about, as there was no work to be done. Shortly after Musk took over, the company had locked down many of its internal systems to ensure no changes were made during the leadership handover (and coming layoffs). “Our active directory got shut off, all of our systems were shut off,” says Thein. She had no way of knowing which leaders still worked at the company or who to bring the alert to. “I got this call and I just thought, ‘Oh, no, What do I do? No one is online.’”
Thein ducked into a glass-walled conference room and, using what she knew of Twitter’s email conventions, began guessing at the contact details of the new leadership team. As parents and children arrived to a DJ and inflatable ghosts overlooking the Seattle skyline, Thein wondered who was even around to do anything about the Brazil problem.
What followed was a chaotic rush to try to plug gaps in Twitter’s processes and prevent the platform from becoming a vector of mis- and disinformation during a major election. To understand what happened, WIRED spoke with five people involved in managing the crisis.
Thein now worries that what she experienced in those early days of Musk’s leadership was less a fluke than a harbinger. A year later, Thein, as well as other former employees and experts, worry that X, gutted by layoffs and helmed by a leader hostile to moderation, is careening toward disaster in 2024. It’s a year in which more than 50 countries—including the US—will hold elections.