A week ago, Elon Musk’s Twitter seemed to be taking shaky footsteps toward a new phase: Mass layoffs had subsided, Musk had hired a new permanent CEO and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had chosen the site to help launch his Republican presidential bid.
Over the course of a day, though, the turmoil that has marked Musk’s seven-month ownership of the social media platform came roaring back.
On Thursday, Twitter was roiled by an organized pressure campaign by conservative pundits seeking to promote a 95-minute anti-transgender video called “What Is A Woman?” Musk, who has staked out views hostile to transgender advocates, initially responded in ways that seemed to satisfy no one before he eventually relented and agreed to promote the video himself. The incident resulted in two high-level departures within 24 hours.
The episode was another window into Musk’s improvisational approach to rewriting Twitter’s rules.
The chief of Twitter’s trust and safety division, Ella Irwin, left the company that same day, after a tenure leading its efforts around content moderation. A second executive, A.J. Brown, whose job was to reassure advertisers that Twitter was a safe place for their brands, also decided to quit, The Wall Street Journal reported. A third person, a program manager who worked on brand safety, said on her Twitter profile that she was now “ex-Twitter.”
Musk said in a tweet Friday that the departures were related to his decision to allow the conservative outlet The Daily Wire to post “What Is A Woman?” — a decision that thrust Twitter back into a raging cultural debate.
The battle at Twitter over the “What Is A Woman?” video began early Thursday morning with a complaint from Jeremy Boreing, CEO of The Daily Wire, who said the video was being suppressed. He also said Twitter had canceled a distribution deal with the outlet because the video featured two instances of misgendering trans people. In a thread, he then stated that he considered the incident to be a free speech issue.
Misgendering trans people had been restricted on the platform since 2018, but under Musk the company quietly repealed that rule.
Musk replied to Boreing’s thread saying that, although he personally uses people’s preferred pronouns, misgendering is allowed on the platform.
“This was a mistake by many people at Twitter,” Musk tweeted in response to Boreing’s complaint. “It is definitely allowed. Whether or not you agree with using someone’s preferred pronouns, not doing so is at most rude and certainly breaks no laws.”
LGBTQ organizations quickly denounced Musk’s decision, saying it opened the door to more bullying of transgender people online.
But the fight over the video didn’t end there. After Musk allowed it to be posted, Twitter users were still unable to share the film or comment on it, limiting its spread, Boreing said Thursday night. He pushed Musk to do more.
“That was fast. Even after @elonmusk said Twitter’s threat to label What Is A Woman “hateful conduct” and to throttle the film’s reach was a mistake, Twitter did that very thing instantly upon the film going live,” Boreing tweeted.
In a series of tweets Thursday night, right-wing influencer Robby Starbuck called on Musk to take measures against anyone involved in limiting the video’s reach.
“Whoever did this should be fired,” Starbuck tweeted.
Musk, who has an adult trans daughter who reportedly no longer wants to be associated with him, initially didn’t side entirely with the conservative pundits. Hedging his support for the video, Musk tweeted at 8:57 p.m. ET Thursday that the video was “sensitive content” and that Twitter would not actively recommend it to people.
But the pressure campaign continued into the night, with some conservative Twitter users saying that they might cancel their monthly subscriptions to the Twitter Blue premium service if the video continued to be restricted at all.
By early Friday, Musk relented and made the video shareable.
“Works now. Only limit is that it will not be placed next to advertising,” Musk tweeted at 8:28 a.m. ET to conservative pundit Matt Walsh, who stars in the video and has gained wide attention for his videos targeting trans people and drag queens.
Three minutes earlier, at 8:25 a.m., Musk himself tweeted out the film, adding, “Every parent should watch this.” The film was pinned to the top of Musk’s profile on Friday afternoon.
By Friday late afternoon, the video had gotten more than 62 million views, according to the tally on Twitter.
Neither The Daily Wire nor Walsh immediately responded to requests for comment. But Walsh celebrated on Twitter and called Musk’s help “a huge win.”
“What a great way to ring in Pride Month,” Walsh tweeted, referencing LGBTQ Pride month that began June 1.
The incident shows the ongoing challenge of stabilizing the situation at Twitter seven months after Musk bought the company for $44 billion. He laid off most of its employees and then rehired some of them, in a chaotic series of events that marked the beginning of his ownership.
Musk also has turned Twitter in an ideologically conservative direction, welcoming fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson and eliminating some of Twitter’s restrictions on bullying and hateful content.
Irwin had been among the most faithful supporters of Musk in the company. In January, Bloomberg News called her the “chief executor of Musk’s whims.”
But within hours of Musk’s decision to allow the “What Is A Woman?” video, Fortune reported that Irwin’s internal Slack account had been deactivated.
Irwin, responding to a request for comment, referred to Musk’s tweet that the departures were related to the fight over transgender rights.
Irwin is the second head of trust and safety to quit Twitter during Musk’s tenure. Yoel Roth left the job in November, saying the company had little need for the position because Musk rewrites the rulebook according to his own edicts.
Irwin’s defense of Musk didn’t always win her fans with others who have done similar work. One former Twitter trust and safety employee said that, in their opinion, it was never clear how much influence she even had.
“We probably will never know how much of it was her responsibility, as opposed to just following orders from Musk, or how much worse things could have been,” this person said.
Twitter saw an uptick in hate speech against LGBTQ people during Irwin’s tenure and, overall, since Musk took over the platform.
Using pronouns other than what someone prefers is a common way to bully trans people, including on social media. People who are trans or gender nonbinary often feel that misgendering invalidates their identity.
Musk’s views on trans rights put him out of sync with many other Silicon Valley billionaires. Dustin Moskovitz, the CEO of software firm Asana and a co-founder of Facebook, weighed in to suggest that people with views like Musk’s should speak with more trans people.
“Actually getting to know some people who transitioned was the single most important part of maturing my views. I highly recommend talking to them rather than just trying to imagine what it is like,” Moskovitz said on Twitter.
Twitter responded to an emailed request for comment with an automated, noninformational response. Newly hired Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino, a former ad executive at NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.