“Petulant” Elon Musk fired Twitter engineer for explaining why fewer people are reading his tweets

Musk fired an engineer who said there was no evidence the algorithm was biased against him

Published February 10, 2023 1:44PM (EST)

Elon Musk | Twitter Checkmarks (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Elon Musk | Twitter Checkmarks (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Twitter CEO Elon Musk on Tuesday called a group of advisors into a room at the company's headquarters to determine why his engagement numbers are dropping and fired an engineer who said there was no evidence the algorithm was biased against him, according to Platformer.

For the past few weeks, Musk has been worried that not enough people are seeing his tweets, even taking his account private last week to see whether it might help the ever-changing algorithm increase his audience. The change came after many prominent right-wing accounts complained that Twitter was limiting their social reach. 

"This is ridiculous," Musk said in the meeting, according to multiple sources who told Platformer about their direct knowledge of the meeting. 

"I have more than 100 million followers, and I'm only getting tens of thousands of impressions," he complained.

One of the two remaining principal engineers at Twitter said that one possible reason for the lower engagement was due to public interest in him and his behavior declining. The employees showed Musk internal data and Google Trends charts regarding his account: they explained that last April, Musk's popularity reached its peak in search rankings with a score of 100. Today, Musk's score sits at just nine. 

The engineers previously tried to investigate whether the billionaire's reach was artificially restricted but ultimately found no evidence that the algorithm was biased against him. Musk did not handle the news well. 

"You're fired, you're fired," Musk told the engineer whose name has been withheld by Platformer due to the harassment Musk has directed towards former Twitter employees.

Musk expressed his disappointment with engineers' work and told them to track how many times his tweets get recommended, one worker told the outlet.

Podcaster Keith Olbermann called Musk a "petulant, moronic child," following the news of the CEO's behavior at the meeting.

Hamza Shaban, a business reporter at The Washington Post, offered his analysis of the situation on Twitter: "The reporting here is a window into the whole mindset and American political posture that if you aren't doing crazy numbers on social media the only explanation is that the algorithm is censoring you."

Technology writer Max Chafkin mocked Musk's reaction to engagement decline, writing: "starting to think that 'shadowbanning anxiety' belongs in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]." 

Semafor writer Benjy Sarlin sarcastically added: "I am a main character, it's the algorithms that got small!"

"Case study on how accumulating obscene wealth accelerates narcissistic insecurities to the point of madness," wrote Guardian editor Antoun Issa. 

Two months ago, Twitter introduced public view counts for every tweet with Musk explaining the change would show how "alive" the platform is.

"Shows how much more alive Twitter is than it may seem, as over 90% of Twitter users read, but don't tweet, reply or like, as those are public actions," he tweeted at the time.

However, after seven weeks, view counts have shown just how little engagement posts are getting compared to audience size. Twitter usage in the United States has also plummeted by almost 9 percent since Musk acquired the company for $44 billion, according to a recent study.

Sources at Twitter told the outlet that the view count may be contributing to the loss of engagement and views as the like and retweet buttons were made smaller to account for the views display, making them more difficult to tap. 

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Twitter has also had more glitches since Musk fired thousands of the company's employees nationwide, leading to disappearing mentions and random tweets popping up from accounts that users didn't follow. 

On Wednesday, the app had a major outage when users were inexplicably told "You are over the daily limit for sending tweets." The glitch was due to an employee accidentally deleting data from an internal service that sets the limits for using Twitter after the team that worked on the service left the company in November. 

"As the adage goes, 'you ship your org chart,'" one current employee told the outlet. "It's chaos here right now, so we're shipping chaos."

Other Twitter employees told Platformer that the app has gone downhill since Musk's takeover. 

"We haven't seen much in the way of longer term, cogent strategy," one employee said. "Most of our time is dedicated to three main areas: putting out fires (mostly caused by firing the wrong people and trying to recover from that), performing impossible tasks, and 'improving efficiency' without clear guidelines of what the expected end results are. We mostly move from dumpster fire to dumpster fire, from my perspective."

Musk also uses replies from his own tweets as product feedback, often confusing employees with menial, hyper-specific tasks. 

"There's times he's just awake late at night and says all sorts of things that don't make sense," one employee told the outlet. "And then he'll come to us and be like, 'this one person says they can't do this one thing on the platform,' and then we have to run around chasing some outlier use case for one person. It doesn't make any sense."

Many employees at the San Francisco headquarters — whose landlord has sued Twitter for nonpayment of rent — already have one foot out the door, with the standard greeting among workers being "where are you interviewing?" and "where do you have offers?"

"Most weeknights, they are fully booked," another current employee said.

The many perks that attracted engineers to apply to work at Twitter have now disappeared. One employee told the outlet that the food "sucks" and they have to pay for it now. "And, I know this sounds petty, but they appear to have obtained the absolute worst coffee vendors on earth," the employee added.

Employees are often scared to answer Musk's questions as there is the "right answer" and the "safe answer." Several workers told Platformer about their experiences working with him and his "goons."

"When you're asked a question, you run it through your head and say 'what is the least fireable response I can have to this right now?'" one employee explained. "There are a handful of true believers that are obviously just ass-kissers and brown-nosers who are trying to take advantage of the clear vacuum that exists."

"If Elon can learn how to put a bit more thought into some of the decisions, and fire from the hip a bit less, it might do some good," another employee said. "He needs to learn the areas where he just does not know things and let those that do know take over." 

"He really doesn't like to believe that there is anything in technology that he doesn't know, and that's frustrating," the same employee said. "You can't be the smartest person in the room about everything, all the time."

Musk's penchant for firing employees impulsively has employees on edge, as entire teams have disappeared with their tasks being handed over to overworked teams who don't understand the nature of the work handed to them.

"They have to become code archaeologists to dig through the repo and figure out what's going on," one employee said.

"I do think the recent vibe overall in tech, and fear of not being able to find something else, is the primary factor for most folks," another employee said. "I know for a fact that most of my team is doing hardcore interview prep, and would jump at likely any opportunity to walk away."

Employees also told the outlet that they are worried about Musk's rocky relationship with the Federal Trade Commission as the company is required to follow a series of steps before introducing changes, including project proposals and security and privacy reviews. 

"His stance is basically 'f*ck you regulators,'" one employee said. With an FTC audit looming this quarter, employees are concerned that Twitter may not have the documentation required to pass inspection. "FTC compliance is concerning," the outlet was told. 

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

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