It’s less than two weeks since Elon Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter and already there are concerns that the company is choosing to ignore key risks in its biggest international growth markets.
Twitter laid off thousands of employees across the company on Friday, including staff in India and Africa. The California-based company already had a turbulent relationship with governments in these regions, and tech experts fear that a diminished workforce will leave the platform more vulnerable than ever to misinformation and political pressure.
Musk’s Twitter laid off nearly all the employees in its only African office just four days after it opened in the Ghanaian capital Accra, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation told CNN.
Twitter announced that it would open its first African office in Ghana in April 2021, but its employees had been working remotely until last week. The sources told CNN that only one employee appears to have been retained in the Ghana office after the global job cuts.
“It’s very insulting,” one former employee said on condition of anonymity. “They didn’t even have the courtesy to address me by name. The email just said ‘see attached’ and yet they used my name when they gave me an offer.”
The company has reportedly also made sweeping reductions in India, one of its biggest markets. It laid off more than 90% of its staff in Asia’s third-largest economy over the weekend, according to a Bloomberg report this week, which cited unnamed sources. Twitter did not respond to multiple requests for comment by CNN.
The Bloomberg report came two days after the Economic Times newspaper reported that Twitter had let go of 180 of about 230 employees in the country, citing unnamed sources.
Free speech advocates say that slashing the workforce is bad news for both employees and users in Twitter’s international markets.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at digital rights group Access Now, said that Twitter had just begun “protecting vulnerable communities” on its platform in India, and now it has sent a “clear signal” that it won’t be investing in public policy and online safety teams anymore.
Under siege in critical markets
Even before the layoffs, Twitter was going through a tough time in both India and Africa.
India’s ruling party has intensified a crackdown on social media and messaging apps since last year. American tech firms have repeatedly expressed fears that the country’s rules may erode privacy and usher in mass surveillance in the world’s fastest growing digital market. India says it is trying to maintain national security.
As a result, Twitter had spent months locked in a high-stakes standoff with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi over orders to take down content. This year, it even launched a legal challenge over orders to block content.
Chima fears that Twitter’s depleted workforce may not have the ability to “challenge” the government and its problematic orders anymore. Musk’s other business interests — including a plan to sell Tesla vehicles in India — may further complicate the picture.
“Musk’s simplistic understanding of free speech coupled with his desire to bring his other businesses to India and secure licensing for those,” make it hard for Twitter to push back, he explained.
India’s tech ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The company also went through a challenging period in Nigeria last year.
Last June, the Nigerian government suspended Twitter’s operations in the country, accusing the social media firm of allowing its platform to be used “for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”
The ban was announced just two days after Twitter deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that was widely perceived as offensive. In the tweet, Buhari threatened citizens in the southeast region following attacks on public property.
Nigeria decided to lift the ban only in January this year.
Tech experts now fear that the company will find it even harder to navigate new laws in emerging markets.
Hire locally to grow locally
“Given India’s adversarial stance against big tech, companies like Twitter have always needed an army of public policy experts in the country to deal with whatever is thrown at them,” said Nikhil Pahwa, Delhi-based founder of tech website MediaNama, adding that he fears Twitter will “struggle to keep pace” with policy changes in India.
Twitter does not share user numbers, but according to India, the platform has 17.5 million users in the country. Last year, India released new technology rules, which were aimed at regulating online content and require companies to hire people who can respond swiftly to legal requests to delete posts, among other things.
Pahwa said that while certain “statutory positions” Twitter was forced to fill in order to comply with these rules will stay, he is unsure about the fate of other departments, including public policy, business and content moderation — all of which are key to thriving in growth markets.
Analysts are also concerned globally about the impact these layoffs will have on misinformation.
In the United States, there are worries that the growing tumult inside Twitter could weaken its safeguards for the midterm elections.
Yoel Roth, the company’s head of safety and integrity, said on Friday about 15% of workers in the trust and safety team were let go.
There are similar concerns in India, where social media activity is expected to ramp up as the country prepares for major state elections in the coming months.
Content moderation is particularly tricky in India, where over 22 languages and hundreds more dialects are spoken. Digital rights groups had been demanding an increase in investment in the activity for years.
“Content moderation has to be specific to geography,” said Vivan Sharan, partner at Delhi-based tech policy consulting firm Koan Advisory Group.
“Are they interested in treating all users equally?” he wondered.
— Larry Madowo contributed to this report.