clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Elon Musk stands in front of a striped background.
Elon Musk has been making major changes to Twitter’s workforce, company culture, and product roadmap after buying the company in late October.
Patrick Pleul/AFP via Getty Images

Filed under:

Elon Musk’s future as Twitter CEO is suddenly in question

Musk asked Twitter users if he should step down. A majority of them said yes.

Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Elon Musk has only been in charge of Twitter since late October. But already, he’s turned the company and its platform upside down.

Almost immediately after he took over, Musk booted top executives, slashed rank-and-file headcount by 50 percent, issued remaining employees an ultimatum to be “hardcore” in their work ethic or quit, and fast-tracked a hodgepodge of potentially revenue-generating features, including charging users to get or keep a verification check mark. And that was all before he allowed former president Donald Trump back on the app, reversing Trump’s former ban on the platform, and then declared “amnesty” for previously suspended accounts.

Amid all the chaos, it’s unclear how long Musk will even stay on as CEO of the social media company. On December 20, Musk confirmed that he will step down as chief executive of Twitter as soon as he finds a replacement, and will eventually run its “software & servers” teams. His announcement came less than two days after he ran a Twitter poll asking people if he should step down, and a clear majority voted in favor of him leaving.

Musk would be leaving Twitter a more precarious company than he found it. In the past two months, Musk has gutted Twitter’s staff, reportedly including some key engineering functions, causing concerns about the site’s technical ability to stay up and running. Twitter’s advertisers, meanwhile are reportedly fleeing the platform because they’re concerned about the resurgence of hate speech under Musk’s “free speech absolutist” policies.

And his new check mark system — Musk’s first major product update — caused chaos in the hours after its release, as newly checkmarked users flooded the app with fake accounts, impersonating figures from Nintendo’s Mario character to former US President George W. Bush.

While Musk didn’t immediately change any of Twitter’s policies against offensive content, in the hours after Musk took over there was a notable surge in hate speech on the app. Some of the users posting felt emboldened by Musk’s “free speech absolutist” attitude, and actively tried to test the limits of what they could say on Twitter under the company’s new leadership. Others have tested the limits of Musk’s free speech stance by making fun of him personally.

But it’s not all fun and games. Many current and former employees, social media academics, and human rights advocates are concerned that Musk could change Twitter for the worse, turning it into an even more intense cesspool of negative content than it already is. Sparking further concern, Musk has suspended several accounts of prominent journalists over highly debatable claims that they “doxxed” the billionaire, which many critics saw as another sign that Musk is censoring speech he personally disagrees with. But others hope Musk can breathe new life into a platform that was already bleeding its most prolific users and, for years, has struggled to turn a profit. In a staff meeting on November 10, Musk said bankruptcy was not out of the question if Twitter doesn’t figure out a way to make more money.

Here are some of the most significant ways Musk has changed the company so far.

Creating uncertainty about who will run the company

Musk doesn’t want to be the CEO of Twitter forever. He has repeatedly said he wants to give that job to someone else “over time.” But that time may be coming sooner than later as Twitter struggles to stay out of the red and Tesla investors are pressuring Musk to shift his focus back to his more financially successful electric vehicle company.

On December 18, Musk ran a poll asking if he should step down from Twitter, inviting people to vote “yes” or “no.” The results were clear: 57 percent of some 17 million respondents voted “yes.”

What’s less clear is who Musk would pick as his replacement. It’s anyone’s guess. Some floated Jared Kushner, since Musk was pictured spending time with him at the World Cup in Qatar around the time he made the poll. But Musk seems to think he’s the only one who can run Twitter, tweeting a reply on Thursday, “No one wants the job who can actually keep Twitter alive. There is no successor.”

And even if Musk were to step down from his day-to-day duties as CEO, he would still retain control as the the owner of the company. So while Musk has created a lot of chaos about Twitter’s leadership, he’ll still ultimately be the one in charge — unless he sells the company or makes it go bankrupt.

Reinstating suspended accounts

From the beginning, Musk took over Twitter with the stated goal of making it a platform that allowed more controversial speech.

A little under a month after he took over the company, Musk reinstated the account of former President Donald Trump, who was previously banned from Twitter following the the Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol. The move was highly controversial, although Trump has yet to post any new tweets, saying he prefers his own social media app, Truth Social.

Musk went even further in late November. He ran another poll asking whether he should “offer a general amnesty” to suspended accounts as long as they have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam.” A day after posting the poll — and after a majority of people voted “yes” — Musk tweeted that he would start reinstating suspended accounts the following week. The move raised immediate concerns about whether bringing back users who have repeatedly violated Twitter’s hate speech policies would create a flood of abuse on the platform.

In the days prior to reinstating Trump, Musk also reinstated the accounts of comedian Kathy Griffin (who was suspended after she impersonated Musk), controversial psychologist influencer Jordan Peterson, and conservative humor news site Babylon Bee. Peterson and Babylon Bee were both suspended after tweeting anti-trans comments.

These reinstatements come despite the fact that Musk said he would wait to make any major decisions about reinstating banned accounts until he forms a “content moderation council” to advise him.

Gutting Twitter’s staff

Musk began his reign as Twitter’s chief by firing top executives. Within hours of the deal closing, CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal, and head of legal policy, trust, and safety Vijaya Gadde were shown the door. On November 10, Twitter’s top privacy and security executives resigned, including Chief Information Security Officer Lea Kissner, the company’s chief privacy officer, and chief compliance officer, according to several reports. On the same day, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, who in recent days had publicly reassured people that Twitter was still following its content moderation policies, also left.

The week after he took over, Musk continued firing executives, including Twitter’s ad chief, general manager of core tech, and chief marketing officer Leslie Berland (who just a few days earlier sent a cheery note announcing that Musk was visiting the San Francisco offices). He also pulled in more than 50 Tesla engineers to work for Twitter and assembled his own circle of trusted advisers.

Soon after, Musk started gutting Twitter’s rank-and-file staff. He laid off an estimated 50 percent — upward of 3,700 employees — from the company. Twitter informed its staff that layoffs would happen by 9 am PT on Friday in a company-wide email. By late Thursday evening, several employees told Recode or posted publicly on Twitter that they had already been locked out of their work email and Slack accounts without any formal notice of whether they had been laid off.

These cuts are the largest in Twitter’s history, and several current and former employees Recode spoke with are concerned that as a result Twitter’s operations as a platform could be at risk. Musk has also reportedly planned to slash $1 billion from Twitter’s infrastructure costs, such as server space, according to a report from Reuters, furthering those concerns.

Adding to the chaos, Twitter’s management changed its mind about some of its cost-cutting: the company reportedly asked dozens of recently laid-off employees if they wanted to come back to work soon after the layoffs, according to a report from Bloomberg.

The day after the first round of cuts, Musk tweeted about the layoffs and discussed them at an investor conference. He framed the layoffs as necessary because before the deal, “Twitter was having pretty serious revenue challenges and cost challenges,” according to the New York Times.

Twitter’s contract workers were hit heavily by another round of cuts that happened about a week later. Platformer’s Casey Newton reported that around 4,400 out of 5,500 of Twitter’s contractors were laid off, including heavy cuts to Twitter’s content moderation teams. Musk also fired at least twenty employees who posted critical messages about him on Twitter’s internal Slack channels, or who publicly challenged Musk on Twitter.

Some employees are fighting back. Shortly after the initial layoffs, a group of five employees sued Twitter in a class action lawsuit, alleging the company failed to notify them of the impending layoffs as required by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act, that requires certain employers to give a 60-day notice for mass layoffs in the US. Twitter is giving many laid-off employees full pay and benefits through at least January, although it’s not clear if this applied to all employees, particularly those outside the US, sources said.

A week and a half after the first wave of layoffs, the drama intensified when Musk issued an ultimatum to employees: Work harder or quit. In a midnight email to staff, Musk wrote that, moving forward, Twitter will “need to be extremely hardcore” and require employees to work “long hours at high intensity.” The email linked to a form asking employees to confirm that they want to work at the “new Twitter” by 5 pm ET the next day; if not, they would be laid off and receive three months severance.

The ultimatum showed how Musk is trying to pare down Twitter’s staff beyond the initial layoffs that gutted half the company.

But Musk may have gone too far with his demands. In the hours before the deadline, Musk reportedly tried to convince critical employees to stay at the company.

So far, it’s been reported that 1,200 employees declined to agree to Musk’s terms and essentially mass resigned from the company.

As concerns grew from some of Twitter’s current and former employees that the site could soon break because of low levels of engineering staffing, Musk asked all engineers who “can actually write software” to meet him in person on the 10th floor of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters and show examples of recent code they were responsible for. He even encouraged staff to fly to San Francisco the same day if need be, according to emails reported by Platformer’s Zoe Schiffer. Ironically, Twitter employees had been locked out of the building until Monday for fear of sabotage, so there was confusion about how people would do this.

Shaking up Twitter’s internal culture

Musk has been running Twitter in his own way, similar to how he runs his other companies: in an ad hoc and intense fashion. Rather than talking to his employees first, Musk often tweets whatever he’s thinking, including his plans for the company.

Elon’s first message to his staff was in an email sent on November 9 around midnight Pacific time, announcing that he was ending Twitter’s remote-work-for-all policy, effective within hours.

Musk’s intense management style has been an adjustment for many Twitter employees who are used to a more measured, communicative, and structured work culture. One anonymous Twitter employee told the Washington Post that the work atmosphere under Elon was like “working in Trump’s White House.”

Employees are turning to private or anonymous communication platforms like Blind, Signal, and Discord to commiserate, several employees told Recode, since they no longer feel they can be candid on internal Slack or email.

Another major change Elon is making to Twitter’s internal culture is to drastically ramp up the pace at which new features are developed.

Normally, product changes like the ones that Musk proposed — such as charging users for verification — would take months or even years to implement at Twitter. Now, employees are being asked to execute them almost overnight.

This could drive the kind of innovation that Twitter, a money-losing business, might need. But it could also leave staff demoralized, or worse, compromise the reliability and security the app provides to its hundreds of millions of users. Twitter already has existing problems on this front: Former Twitter head of security and internal whistleblower Peiter Zatko warned that the platform “was over a decade behind industry security standards” in September.

Making people pay for blue check marks

The first official product change Musk confirmed after taking over Twitter was to start charging $8 per month for “blue check marks,” the verification badges that Twitter currently gives to public figures like journalists, politicians, and celebrities. Musk wanted to open up check marks to more people, as long as they’re willing to pay that price.

Twitter will also give your account more priority in replies, mentions, and search if you subscribe for the new service — meaning that those who don’t pay up could lose visibility on the platform.

Twitter’s verification program was originally designed to make sure people really are who they say they are online. Before you got a check mark, you had to apply for one and show ID proving your real identity matched your Twitter name. That helped Twitter’s user base make sure that the account they were looking at wasn’t an imposter.

Now, Musk has removed any kind of ID verification from Twitter Blue. That means anyone who pays $8 a month can pretend to be someone else, with a check mark next to their name. That’s caused major trolling, with some Twitter Blue accounts impersonating famous people like LeBron James, George W. Bush, and even Mario, the Nintendo character. Many of the new fake accounts use realistic profile photos, names, and handles, and have a check mark next to their name, so it’s hard to tell who’s real or who’s fake.

Elon seems to find all this amusing, replying with crying-of-laughter emojis to several tweets pointing out the fake accounts.

This change also caused major debate among notable figures who got their check mark for free — many of whom said they aren’t willing to pay to keep their verification. Fellow billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban criticized the new feature, saying Musk “killed the most valuable part of Twitter” by making it harder for him to find trustworthy information about breaking news events.

After a group of people including comedian Kathy Griffin began trolling Musk’s new policy by changing their names to “Elon Musk” and making fun of the tech CEO, Musk suspended their accounts and announced new rules: Any Twitter accounts involved in impersonation not clearly labeled as “parody” would be immediately suspended without warning, and any verified user who changes their Twitter name will temporarily have their check mark removed.

Musk also made another sudden change when he axed a new “Official” gray check mark (in addition to the blue one) rolled out on Thursday — meant to distinguish verified users who are also notable public figures. Within hours of the release, Musk tweeted that he “killed” the feature, and the new check marks left as quickly as they arrived.

Shortly after the feature was pulled back, Musk tweeted this explanation: “Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.”

On November 11, Twitter suspended the subscription service for buying checkmarks — Twitter Blue. Musk said that the feature will relaunch on November 29 once it’s “rock solid.”

But Musk announced another delay on November 21st when he said he would postpone the relaunch of the service until, “there is high confidence of stopping impersonation.”

Emboldening the trolls

Musk has said his primary reason for buying Twitter was to make it a haven for free speech. He’s echoed conservatives’ longstanding concerns that Twitter is politically biased against right-wing speech despite the lack of evidence of that bias.

Conservative politicians like former president Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have celebrated Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter as a major win, with Trump saying he’s happy that Twitter “will no longer be run by Radical Left Lunatics and Maniacs.”

But Musk’s more laissez-faire philosophy on content moderation has also caused another group of people to celebrate: trolls spreading racist, sexist, and otherwise hateful speech.

One example: There was a 500 percent increase in uses of the n-word on Twitter in the 12 hours after Musk’s deal was completed, according to a study from the Network Contagion Research Institute, even though none of Twitter’s rules have changed on the matter.

Twitter has said it’s working on reducing the visibility of these posts. But data points like this have spooked several major advertisers that don’t want their brand affiliated with offensive content, including General Motors, Volkswagen, Audi, and Pfizer — who have are waiting to see more about what direction the company will take under Musk’s leadership before they resume ads.

Musk has tried to calm down advertiser concerns by tweeting a public note saying that he doesn’t want Twitter to turn into a “free-for-all hellscape.” On Thursday, Musk spoke with leaders of civil rights groups like the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and Color of Change, promising them that Twitter takes hate speech seriously, and that he won’t make any major decisions about reinstating banned accounts (e.g., Trump) until after he sets up a content moderation advisory council, which he said will at least take several weeks.

Musk also told civil rights leaders he would reverse his decision to limit the amount of staff who can access content moderation systems, another one of their concerns.

But civil rights leaders organizing under the banner “#StopToxicTwitter Coalition” said that Musk had failed to hold true to his promises — and ramped up their demands for major advertisers to pause all ads on the platform, Musk tweeted on Friday that Twitter had a “massive drop in revenue” due to “activist groups” who he accused of trying to “destroy free speech in America.”

It’s not just advertisers that are leaving Twitter because of Elon; there are also early signs that Elon’s takeover and the resulting negativity are causing some users to leave.

One report in MIT Technology Review estimated some 877,000 accounts were deactivated in the week after Musk’s deal closed. That’s more than double the usual number in that same time period, according to data from the firm Bot Sentinel that MIT Tech Review cited.

Since taking over, Musk has claimed that, to the contrary, Twitter’s daily active users have reached all-time highs.

Of course, these are all estimates, and only from a short window of time. Twitter has also been losing its most valuable “heavy tweeters” in droves for a while now, according to a leaked internal report covered by Reuters, and that predates Musk’s takeover. But time will tell whether Musk reverses or exacerbates Twitter’s existing problem of users fleeing the platform.

Throwing other ideas at the wall

Aside from charging for Twitter verification, Musk has been planning a whole new set of changes to the platform. While none of these are confirmed yet, they’re reportedly in the works or being tested.

Those changes include making people pay for certain types of “high risk” video content (many are speculating it would be adult video content), according to the Washington Post; bringing back Vine, the short-form video app Twitter acquired and later shuttered; changing the login page to the explore page; charging people for sending DMs to high-profile users.

Twitter is considering entering the payments business — an area Musk has experience in going back to his pre-PayPal days — according to a New York Times report citing paperwork filed with the US Treasury Department. It could be part of Musk’s stated ambitions to make Twitter a “superapp” called X, which could be similar to WeChat in China that’s used not just for posting messages but for things like making shopping purchases or ordering food delivery.

Otherwise, it seems as though Elon is throwing a bunch of ideas out to see which ones work. As one investor in Musk’s deal, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, said at the Web Summit conference in November, he expects only 10 percent of Musk’s ideas “will stick.”

So far, many of Musk’s ideas (like Vine and paid videos) are old ones that Twitter has already tried — and failed at.

Over time, it will become clear if Musk will be able to successfully resurrect these old ideas — and his new ones, like paying for a check mark — with a very different work culture and staff than Twitter had before.

We’ll keep updating this post as Musk continues to shape Twitter, for better or worse.

Update, December 21, 1 pm ET: This story, originally published on November 4, has been updated several times, most recently with details about Musk’s potential departure as CEO.


America’s first moon landing in 50 years, explained

Future Perfect

What two years of AI development can tell us about Sora


AI-generated video is here to awe and mislead

View all stories in Technology

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.