Regarding Twitter, Musk, and Trust

As a cybersecurity professional, I see plenty of risks that worry me as Twitter becomes a private company – but one in particular stands out more than any other.


Specifically, I believe Twitter under Musk is facing serious and pervasive questions of trust across a wide range of issues.


Where to begin? First, company cultures, like cybersecurity, depend on stability and trust -- neither of which Musk is providing. Right now, Twitter's own employees, those who remain, can't trust their employment status even after signing questionable pledges to be ‘extreme’ workers or after Musk said his mass layoffs were completed. They can’t trust that their immediate supervisors will keep them informed about company plans during this chaotic period because those managers also don’t know what’s going on.


Large gaps remain on the Twitter organizational chart: Who will sign off on timecards? Make and/or approve critical operational decisions? Keep the servers running, tweets tweeting, and undertake the basic care and feeding of its systems? How about responding to media, regulators, or law enforcement requests?  Under Musk's shoot-first management style, these roles seem to shift by the hour. To employees and outsiders alike, this is not how to run a company in a stable or trustworthy manner, let alone commandeer one.


After buying the company, Musk pledged not to restore any banned accounts until a 'moderation council' was formed and deliberated such controversial decisions. That sounded good, but didn’t happen – Elon now claims the idea was sabotaged by ‘activist’ groups and on Thanksgiving, announced the reinstatement of almost anyone previously banned. Thus, we can infer that Musk's own public decrees on controversial issues can’t be trusted -- even as the 'Chief Twit'!


Admittedly, cynics may argue that these reinstatement decisions are desperate actions to increase 'user engagement' given Musk's precarity with skeptical advertisers. But many don’t trust that he will do enough to prevent Twitter misuse from causing costly public embarrassments that diminish their brands. So they’re reducing or eliminating the spending on ads Musk desperately needs to run his company. He's been reduced to calling CEOs personally to complain about their ad spending decisions and lashing out publicly against those companies.


Making things worse, the company reportedly no longer has a viable PR department. This won’t  inspire trust in Twitter if public confusion reigns but nobody except its mercurial owner is around to take calls in-between whimsical tweeting and jumping from one self-inflicted crisis to the next. Trustworthy messaging and messengers are essential to any organization and provide clarity, stability, and reassurance to customers, partners, and the public. Impulsive uncertainty and conflicting messages breeds distrust.


We’re also learning that the company’s own announcements can't be trusted, either. The launch of Twitter’s hastily revised ‘checkmark’ verification scheme quickly was aborted days later due to worries over potential misuse around the American midterm elections. It was then suspended indefinitely after a few weeks later, only to be reversed by a new scheme and launch announcement soonafter. (Though in fairness, Musk did warn us that “Twitter will do a lot of dumb things” under his direction – but doing “dumb things” rarely builds trust in anything.)


Perhaps most damaging, I expect users, especially those in marginalized or at-risk communities, to question whether they can trust Twitter to effectively address misinformation, abuse, harassment, threats, or other platform problems reflective of society’s ongoing ills, including my Musk himself. Since Musk’s purchase, Twitter’s Trust and Safety team practically has been eliminated and its legions of content moderators dismissed.  To wit: in recent hours, Twitter suffered an overwhelming attack against hashtags related to the latest Chinese protests because there was few available staff available to police the spammy content and the many accounts spreading noise on the platform. Even the Brookings Institution notes the increase in hate speech on Twitter in the weeks after Musk's purchase of the company.


From a cybersecurity perspective, reflecting on Musk's haphazard actions to-date at Twitter, we can't trust that Twitter's platform, systems, infrastructure, and operations will remain reliably functional and secure. This will be problematic given Musk's alleged plans to turn Twitter into his sensational 'X' app that "does everything" -- including process various consumer and person-to-person financial transactions and otherwise deeply integrate in a person's life. But if we can't trust the company, platform, or app, we won't use it --- and that's not helpful for Musk's vision of future-Twitter.


Finally, as a private company, there are no mandated financial reports filed with regulators for the public or partners to view – meaning that already skeptical companies will have to trust Elon regarding the operating metrics and financial data provided when negotiating advertising rates. (Hopefully, Twitter's statements of financial condition as a private entity will be more accurate and insightful than those from other prominent privately-owned companies.)


By contrast, Facebook, even as a public company majority controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, must comply with financial regulations and mandatory public disclosures of accurate business and operating information. The company has some semblance of corporate accountability through its Board of Directors and on user or content bans via the public actions of its Oversight Board. There are executive guardrails. Musk has few, if any such restrictions with Twitter as a private company and his personal playground. Twitter is now Musk, and Musk is now Twitter.


Trust is a necessary component of any successful organization or operational processes. Sadly, the chaotic, capricious, and impulsive management style exhibited by Musk during his first few weeks of Twitter ownership raise serious questions of how trustworthy Twitter might be going forward -- both as a company and a public communications platform.


Whether it’s a country or a company, unchecked and impulsive displays of authority without meaningful transparency, accountability, and maturity makes it hard to engender trust and goodwill by others, be they citizens, customers, users, or bystanders.


In pursuing his vision of creating a global ‘public square’, Elon may soon learn that trust is something hard to maintain but easily lost. Unfortunately, once lost, trust is very difficult to regain.

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