“Not a Good Look”: Twitter Levels Up to a New Tier of Chaos


There’s something about Twitter that inspires its employees, investors, and rival CEOs to produce highly quotable quips. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once said the company was “like a clown car that drove into a gold mine and fell in”—a line I liked so much that I almost used it for the title of a book. Investor Peter Thiel once said, “You could throw a grenade into the Twitter offices after five o’clock, and the only person you would kill would be the cleaning lady,” referring to its employees’ alleged tendency to cut out early. (Thiel also once remarked, “It’s a horribly mismanaged company—probably a lot of pot-smoking going on there.”) Inside Twitter, employees had their own darkly humorous ways of reconciling the company’s manifest dysfunction with the continued popularity of its product. “Twitter succeeded in spite of itself,” they used to joke. And my personal favorite: “Twitter is the company that can’t kill itself.”

This past week Twitter seemed hell-bent on proving every one of its naysayers right—and then some. The week began with Elon Musk subpoenaing former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify in the lawsuit the social network filed against the SpaceX founder after he backed out of buying the company for $44 billion. Musk, who withdrew his bid after accusing Twitter of misrepresenting the number of spam and fake accounts on its service, wants Dorsey to say under oath whether he was aware of the issue.

For most companies, that would have been enough drama for a year. For Twitter, it was just another Monday. On Tuesday, it emerged that Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, Twitter’s former security chief, had filed a whistleblower complaint with the United States government, alleging that the social network’s executives deceived federal regulators about their meager efforts to fight spam and hackers. He accused the company of violating the terms of a 2010 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, in which Twitter had promised to put in reasonable safeguards to protect private messages and tweets, according to The Washington Post. In May, the FTC fined Twitter $150 million for “breaking its privacy promises,” but Zatko alleged in his complaint that Twitter is still falsely claiming that it has a solid security plan.

By Wednesday, Zatko had been subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the goings-on inside Twitter. As the week progressed, other regulators jumped on board, including Ireland and France, two national data-protection authorities in the European Union, both of which said they were also investigating the bombshell whistleblower report.

Not bad for 72 hours.

What happens next at Twitter is anyone’s guess. Maybe Trump creates a fake Twitter account and tweets the nuclear codes he stashed at Mar-a-Lago. Or maybe Twitter manages to make it 24 hours without more bad news. Of these two scenarios, it’s hard to say which is less likely. With the whistleblower report, the lawsuit against Musk, and the possibility of Dorsey’s private messages about the proposed sale being aired at a public hearing, it feels like Twitter is headed for some kind of disaster scenario—one that may allow the company to kill itself at last.

Among the insiders I’ve spoken to, including numerous former and current Twitter employees and advisers, the consensus seems to be that a complete and utter reset is the only thing that can pull the company out of its existential crisis. What does that look like? Letting Musk walk away from the deal that he clearly doesn’t want anything to do with, firing the entire board of directors for its abysmal oversight over the past half decade, and, most importantly, relieving CEO Parag Agrawal of his duties. (More on that in a moment.) Oh, and telling employees to return to the office—many still choose to work from home, long after many other tech companies began requiring employees to show up in person.

Mind you, I don’t think any of this will happen, and neither do the people I spoke to. But what has become clear is that Agrawal, who was Twitter’s chief technology officer before ascending to the role of CEO, is in way over his head.

After news broke about the whistleblower, for example, Agrawal sent an email to employees that read like it had been pulled right out of the What Not to Do in a PR Crisis handbook—and that (duh!) was immediately leaked on Twitter. “I know this is frustrating and confusing to read, given Mudge was accountable for many aspects of this work that he is now inaccurately portraying more than six months after his termination,” Agrawal wrote in the letter. In other words: This isn’t true, but if it is, it’s his fault, not mine. As one former Twitter executive said to me, “Not a good look for Agrawal.”

The complaint filed by Zatko also makes Agrawal look worse than anyone else at the company. It alleges that after Dorsey “stepped down” in November 2021 (as I’ve reported, Dorsey was actually pushed out), Zatko informed the board that “protections for sensitive user data were weaker than they had been told.” It was then, according to the complaint, that Agrawal fired Zatko. (While Twitter declined requests for comment regarding allegations against Agrawal, Rebecca Hahn, Twitter’s global vice president of communications, told media outlets, “Mr. Zatko was fired from Twitter more than six months ago for poor performance and leadership, and he now appears to be opportunistically seeking to inflict harm on Twitter, its customers, and its shareholders.”)

To be fair, the chaos at Twitter long preceded Agrawal. I should know: I’ve spent my career documenting it. But over the last six months, the insanity has reached a crescendo, and Agrawal’s actions have sometimes fanned the flames. When the Musk deal was falling through, Agrawal decided to post a Twitter thread challenging the billionaire’s assertions around bots. Musk responded by daring Agrawal to debate him publicly. Turns out that starting a public pissing match with the world’s reigning king of Twitter pissing matches isn’t such a great idea.

On top of that, as the whistleblower noted, Agrawal allegedly once suggested that Twitter strike a deal with Russia around censorship and surveillance on the social platform so that the beleaguered social network could grow its user base there. (Twitter is currently heavily restricted and censored in Russia.) The whistleblower report also alleges that India, China, and Nigeria all sought to force Twitter to hire agents who could be used as leverage—which, if true, could be the most damning revelation of all.

On Wednesday, Agrawal and Twitter executives tried to restore a semblance of order at an all-hands meeting. In typical Twitter fashion, audio of the meeting soon leaked to Reuters. Executives could be heard noting that Twitter’s employee attrition is now at a staggering 18.3%—fueled, naturally, by the endless drama the company finds itself enmeshed in. “We have never made a material misrepresentation to a regulator, to our board, to all of you,” Agrawal said in the meeting while defending the company from the whistleblower allegations.

The problem for Agrawal and Twitter is that Zatko is actually a very reliable and reputable narrator. He’s spent his life defending security, winning numerous security awards (yes, they’re a thing), and running security for Microsoft and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Twenty-four years ago he made a lasting impression at one of the most famous tech hearings in American history, when a group of seven hackers from L0pht Heavy Industries told Congress that the internet desperately needed better security. “If you’re looking for computer security, then the internet is not the place to be,” said Zatko, then a 27-year-old with flowing curly hair worthy of a biblical prophet. The internet, he noted, could be taken completely offline within 30 minutes “by any of the seven individuals seated before you.” That hearing has since become folklore, inspiring alternate-timeline fantasies of the tech utopia we’d inhabit today if Congress had only listened. Something tells me that when Zatko goes before Congress next month, Agrawal, his former boss, will be the one sitting in the hot seat.





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