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Ella Irwin wasn’t always a public person. Before joining Twitter, she had worked in lower-profile roles, including in loss prevention at banks and then in trust and safety at companies like Google, Amazon and Twilio.
That all changed in November 2022. Just five months after joining the company, she took on one of the most contentious jobs in all of tech: head of trust and safety for Twitter.
She would last just seven more months. In June, Irwin resigned from the company after Musk publicly criticized moderation actions that had been taken at the company around the issue of misgendering.
“It absolutely was the hardest experience that I’ve gone through in my career,” Irwin, 48, said.
In an interview with NBC News — her first since leaving the company — Irwin discussed why she left, what she thinks of Elon Musk’s leadership and his attacks on former employees, and what her next steps might be. She recently released the first episode of her new podcast, “The CryRoom,” which she co-hosts with Jess Anderson, who had a long career at tech companies like Salesforce but now runs an independent consulting firm and serves as vice president of cloud foundations at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
Adding clarity to her sudden departure from the company, Irwin said that she resigned because it had become clear to her that “there was no longer alignment” between the company and her “nonnegotiable principles.”
“One was this notion of freedom of speech versus freedom of reach,” she said. “It was important to me that there was an understanding that hate speech, for example, violent graphic content, things like that, were not promoted, advertised, amplified.”
The other, she said, was the principle of user choice.
“I’m a big believer in giving people the ability to make the decisions that are right for them,” she said. “Who they want to follow, what they don’t want to see, they should be able to create and choose their own adventure.”
Her comments come as X, formerly Twitter, is facing widespread criticism for how it has handled misinformation and terrorist content around the Israel-Hamas war, as well as an investigation from the European Commission on the matter.
Irwin called such misinformation “extremely upsetting,” noting that X is not alone in struggling with it.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there are a lot of people heads down, doing everything they can to solve for this,” she said. “I think about the damage that misinformation at scale can do to the product experience, the customer experience, to society. It’s one of the most important problems we need to solve for.”
Musk has repeatedly suggested that X’s Community Notes feature can help address fake news and misinformation on the platform, but Irwin said she thinks more needs to be done.
“It can’t be your one solution,” she said. “It’s one of a whole toolbox of things that needs to happen.”
Irwin’s interview offers a rare perspective on X under Musk from one of his former executives. Irwin said that she’s still under a nondisclosure agreement with the company, but that she plans to use her podcast to discuss professional and personal lessons from her time at X.
She said Musk came into then-Twitter with “startup energy,” looking to “move fast and make changes.” Some of the first changes he made were massive layoffs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that,” Irwin said.
Irwin first joined Twitter in June 2022 after Musk had agreed to buy Twitter but had not yet taken control. She knew a Musk takeover was possible but said she was attracted to the opportunity of helping to re-establish trust in one of the world’s largest social media companies.
She briefly left the company following the layoffs, but rejoined at Musk’s request. Irwin said that it wasn’t an easy decision, but that they had aligned on a few points.
She remembers them agreeing about wanting to get rid of “bad actors” on the platform and addressing the issue of child sexual exploitation material. (X has stated that its issues with child abuse content have improved. NBC News reporting has brought those statements into question.)
Irwin also said the pair initially aligned on protecting speech on the platform through moderation that might affect the spread of certain content while rarely removing it.
“My parents are both immigrants. And they came from a country that did not have freedom of speech. In fact, my grandfather was arrested and spent years in Siberia in a Siberian prison for criticizing the government,” Irwin said. “So my parents sort of instilled this strong respect for freedom of speech.”
Shortly after Irwin re-joined the company, Musk published a series of incendiary anti-LGBTQ posts to X. In December 2022, he smeared Irwin’s predecessor, the recently departed Yoel Roth, adding onto a dogpile of tweets falsely suggesting that Roth, who is gay, had advocated for child grooming in a 2016 academic paper.
The paper was Roth’s Ph.D. dissertation titled “Gay Data,” in which Roth argued for more wide-ranging safety features on gay dating apps. Roth argued that the apps should consider the fact that children, who are not allowed on the apps, were getting around rules and using them anyway, which should inform how dating apps create safety features. Musk misconstrued the paper, writing, “Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services in his PhD thesis.”
Irwin said that she was not supportive of the comments, calling them “terrible” and saying that they went too far. But she said that some of the backlash Yoel received in response to the “Twitter Files,” a series of posts from conservative journalists who were given access to the company’s communications and moderation decisions, didn’t seem problematic to her because he was in a public-facing role. Irwin told the Daily Beast that she had limited involvement in the project.
In a phone call, Roth said, “No corporation in history has voluntarily disclosed executive communications in this kind of way. It is not necessarily a great strategy,” explaining that he believes the stunt eroded trust at the company. ”I suppose it’s fair game for Musk to do it because he owns the company and he owns its intellectual property and he owns its legal liabilities, but it doesn’t strike me as beneficial.”
Irwin described Musk as impulsive at times.
“There’s more emotion behind his decisions than I would have maybe expected before I met him,” Irwin said. “And I think that contributes to some of the impulsiveness.”
Describing Musk’s public-facing behavior, Irwin said: “I think there were a lot of situations in which I would have handled things very differently. There were things that I wouldn’t have tweeted in the middle of the night, there were certainly things that could have been stated better.”
Despite his tweets, Irwin said she learned a lot from working with Musk.
“Elon is very good at questioning everything, boiling things down to first principles, removing constraints, and that can be very powerful when you need to drive a lot of change very quickly,” she said.
Irwin, whose role expanded at the company to include interacting with some journalists, said she clashed with Musk on how to handle communications with reporters. Musk is notoriously critical of the media and has eliminated much of the internal infrastructure at his companies that were previously devoted to communicating with journalists. When Musk took over, the company created an autoreply for its media email that responded to all inquiries with a poop emoji.
Irwin said she believed that actions like that made the company worse off.
“There was an environment where the press was not able to get to ask questions,” which she believes leads to speculation and the use of unreliable sources.
“I think it would have been beneficial to be more open,” she said. “We definitely had conversations about that. There’s a reason that I was able to comment to the press at times.”
In June, Irwin became part of the news after a chaotic 24 hours at X ended with her leaving the company.
Under the principle of “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach,” an anti-trans documentary called “What Is A Woman?” had been restricted on the platform. Conservative backers of the film launched a campaign to change that, complaining that they were being censored and that X had canceled a distribution deal with them because the film contains instances of misgendering.
Musk responded in a tweet, saying that misgendering “is definitely allowed” and blamed unnamed employees for throttling the film.
“This was a mistake by many people at Twitter,” Musk wrote, adding, “Whether or not you agree with using someone’s preferred pronouns, not doing so is at most rude and certainly breaks no laws.”
Some users still complained, saying they couldn’t share or comment on the video. The next day, Musk shared the documentary himself and said he had removed any restrictions on the video.
Hours later, it was reported that Irwin was leaving the company. At the time, she didn’t elaborate on why.
But she did in her interview with NBC News.
“When I felt like there was no longer alignment to those core principles, I felt it was time to leave.”
Musk has since made moves that Irwin said illustrated that divide. In August, he said that X would eventually eliminate its blocking feature.
“I don’t want to have a negative experience every time I log into Twitter,” Irwin said about the idea.
It’s now been four months since Irwin’s resignation from the company, and she says she’s enjoying the break.
“I’ve worked every day since I was 14 years old, and with the exception of a few short vacations a year, I haven’t really ever had a real break even between jobs, so I wanted to give myself this time,” she said. “Having said that, I have been talking to a few companies recently.”
Irwin wouldn’t divulge which companies, but asked if she would ever return to X, Irwin was taken aback.
“You never say never, right? But I think there would have to be a lot of things that would have to change,” she said. “Companies change, leadership teams change, a lot of things happen — but I don’t know that that would happen anytime soon.”
Ben Goggin is the deputy editor for technology at NBC News Digital.
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