It’s An Especially Bad Time: Tech Layoffs Are Hitting Ethics and Safety Teams
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, tech companies faced increasing scrutiny regarding their impact on users, elections, and society. To address these concerns, many invested in safeguards such as hiring employees for election safety, misinformation, and online extremism. They also formed ethical AI teams and invested in oversight groups. These teams helped develop new safety features and policies.
However, the past few months have seen tech companies slash tens of thousands of jobs, including those on ethics and safety teams. Twitter eliminated teams focused on security, public policy, and human rights issues when Elon Musk took over last year. Twitch, a livestreaming platform owned by Amazon, recently laid off employees focused on responsible AI and other trust and safety work. Microsoft cut a key team focused on ethical AI product development. And Facebook-parent Meta suggested it might cut staff working in non-technical roles as part of its latest round of layoffs.
The cuts have raised questions about Silicon Valley’s commitment to extensive guardrails and user protections at a time when content moderation and misinformation remain challenging problems to solve. Some see Musk’s cuts at Twitter as a pivot point for the industry: “Twitter making the first move provided cover for them,” says Katie Paul, director of the online safety research group the Tech Transparency Project.
Complicating matters, tech giants are rapidly rolling out transformative new technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality, both of which have sparked concerns about their potential impacts on users. Jevin West, associate professor at the University of Washington, says, “It’s an especially bad time to be getting rid of these teams when we’re on the cusp of some pretty transformative, kind of scary technologies.”
When Musk laid off thousands of Twitter employees last fall, it included staffers focused on everything from security and site reliability to public policy and human rights issues. Former employees, including ex-head of site integrity Yoel Roth, have expressed concerns that Twitter’s cuts could undermine its ability to handle content moderation. Similarly, some former employees at Twitch are worried that recent layoffs there could undermine its ability to combat hate speech, harassment, and more.
Rethinking content moderation and ethical AI
As transformative technologies like AI and virtual reality emerge, it is crucial that tech companies prioritize ethics and safety. AI algorithms, for example, can perpetuate existing biases and amplify harmful content. Tech companies need ethics and safety teams that can account for these risks and mitigate potential harms. Yet, many seem to be scaling back these teams at a time when they are needed most.
If tech companies had built such teams at the advent of social media, we might be in a better place now, says Jevin West. But as we confront generative AI and chatbots, it is crucial that companies do not repeat past mistakes. In these challenging times, ethics and safety cannot be an afterthought.
– The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in technology companies has decreased significantly over the past year.
– Content moderation has become increasingly challenging in a world where disinformation and harmful content spread quickly on social media platforms.
– The Algorithmic Justice League, founded by computer scientist Joy Buolamwini, seeks to identify and address biases in AI algorithms.
Tech layoffs are hitting ethics and safety teams just as transformative technologies like AI and virtual reality emerge. These layoffs threaten to undermine the ability of tech companies to address content moderation, bias, and harmful content. As we confront these challenges, ethics and safety must be a priority, not an afterthought.
As tech companies face increasing pressure to address issues like content moderation, bias, and misinformation, cutting ethics and safety teams seems counterproductive. While it may save money in the short term, it can have significant long-term consequences for both users and the reputation of tech firms. Tech companies must prioritize ethics and safety as they develop and implement new technologies.