One by one, Amir Shevat’s team members were disappearing.
It was past midnight in Austin, Texas on Friday November 4th, and the 46-year-old software engineer found himself unable to sleep as he waited to discover which of the workers he managed would be fired from Twitter.
Employees had been braced for massive layoffs ever since Elon Musk took over the troubled social media company, and had been told to expect a final decision the next day.
Instead, the cuts began ahead of schedule on Thursday night, when Shevat’s colleagues suddenly began vanishing from the company messaging channel – each profile going grey as their work computers were remotely “bricked”, or made inoperable.
“It was very emotional,” recalls Shevat in an interview with The Independent. “You can’t go to sleep, you can’t do anything… you have to stay there for [your employees]. That’s what leaders do, in my book.” He likens it to a scene in The Matrix where the treacherous Cipher strolls among his helpless comrades, taunting them as he unplugs their brains one by one.
In San Francisco, 48-year-old data scientist Melissa Ingle was watching the same thing. Her team had set up a WhatsApp group ahead of time so they could stay in touch if they were fired.
As the clocks hit 11pm in each successive timezone – first New York City, then Chicago, then Arizona and the American Midwest – her colleagues were forcibly logged out of Twitter’s systems, sometimes while they were writing or running computer code.
“It was like this tidal wave coming across the United States, advancing towards you, and you had no idea if you were going to be drowned or if you were standing on high enough ground to escape this,” Ingle tells The Independent.
Shevat was fired that night, while Ingle’s job would survive another week. But for them and the other roughly 13,000 people who worked for Twitter before Musk, it was only the beginning of a chaotic month-long whirlwind of bizarre demands, sudden purges, public humiliations, broken promises, and allegedly cruel and abusive management tactics.
“The treatment Twitter has given these folks has been abhorrent,” says Akiva Cohen, a lawyer representing at least 22 former Twitter employees who accuse the company of illegally withholding their severance money and benefits. “[Musk] has mocked people after firing them, gone back on his and Twitter’s word about what severance employees could expect if they were fired after the merger, fired people on the eve of a holiday, and just hasn’t seemed to recognise, at all, that he’s dealing with human beings who deserve to be treated with basic decency and respect.”
This is the story of how Elon Musk all but razed Twitter 1.0 to the ground – and of what happened to the people who stood in his way.
It was hardly an inspiring message to see from Parag Agrawal, the chief executive of Twitter.
“Hey folks, if you’ve been having anxiety issues because of everything that’s been happening and the potential consequences, I have good news. These things take a long time… so you’ll remain in the same state for weeks if not months before this all resolves!”
The real Agrawal never said these words. But his parody likeness – as depicted by Twitter employee and cartoonist Manu Cornet on April 25, 2022, the same day Musk agreed to buy the company for $44 billion – summed up the trepidation and confusion felt by many “Tweeps”.
Musk’s buyout bid had followed weeks of strident criticism and sometimes mockery from Musk, who accused Twitter of undermining democracy by suppressing free speech and sparked speculation that he might unban former president Donald Trump.
“Even back then, we were very, very worried,” says Ingle. “It made us feel like we had a target on our backs.” She worked on Twitter’s “civic integrity” team, designing machine learning algorithms that helped human content moderators find and remove political misinformation – exactly the kind of speech policing Musk seemed to be against. Other colleagues created similar algorithms to detect harassment, child abuse material, and copyright infringement.
Over the next six months, Musk attempted to back out of the bid and wrestled with Twitter’s board in the courts and in the media, driving down the company’s stock price and its employees’ morale.
One Cornet cartoon in May showed Musk on a ship preparing to board Twitter’s vessel, watching in confusion as its crew use axes to chop their own boat apart. Another in early October showed Twitter’s blue bird mascot groaning in stupor after riding a twisting rollercoaster.
When Musk finally sealed the deal by carrying a real-life kitchen sink into Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on October 26, most employees were expecting massive layoffs – as many as 75 per cent. But the new management quickly made clear that communication was not its priority.