Tech industry insiders and experts are concerned about the stability and security of Twitter, after the social media giant let go of many of its core engineers.
Hundreds of workers quit this week after Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, demanded they commit to an “extremely hardcore” work environment or resign with severance pay. Thousands of others had already been fired.
Hashtags like #RIPTwitter, #twittershutdown and #twittermigraton have since developed, with some former employees sharing their experiences on the very platform they’ve either left or been fired from.
There are questions about whether a smaller team can keep such a huge platform afloat, and users are already seeing parts of the site fraying at the edges.
Given that the World Cup is expected to lead to a spike in Twitter traffic in the coming weeks, is the platform really at risk of breaking? And what might happen if it doesn’t start falling apart?
WC a ‘natural opportunity’ for hackers to target Twitter
A current Twitter employee told Business Insider that “outages of some kind” were almost certain during the World Cup, which is a major event on the platform.
The world record for the “most discussed sporting event on Twitter” belongs to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which allegedly generated 672 million tweets.
Paul Haskell-Dowland, professor of cyber security at Edith Cowan University, says the World Cup is “a natural opportunity” for hackers to target Twitter, as the service is expected to be under stress when it sees peaks in demand.
“The absence of people to take care of it can result in impacts on the availability of services,” he says.
“Cybercriminals around the world will be well aware of the challenges the Twitter platform currently faces.”
He said hackers were likely considering trying to do denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, which flood a website with too much traffic, or even trying to compromise Twitter accounts by exploiting vulnerabilities in the platform.
It wasn’t clear how much Twitter’s cybersecurity team had been affected by the recent layoffs and departures, but earlier this year its former chief security officer, Peiter Zatko, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging the platform’s cybersecurity was in a dire state.
Twitter users are noticing more bugs, spam and scams
Some Twitter users have seen an increase in bugs on the platform in recent weeks, as well as more spam and scam content and problems with two-factor authentication when logging in.
Downdetector, a service that tracks website outages, has flagged in several countries in recent days that “user reports indicate possible problems on Twitter”.
Three engineers who left Twitter this week told The Associated Press that they expected the platform’s 230 million users to experience some discomfort now that more than two-thirds of the company’s core services engineers before Musk are gone.
One said there was “a betting pool” to predict when critical aspects of the site would begin to break.
On Tuesday, Musk announced that he had begun shutting down “microservices” that he deemed unnecessary “bloatware” on the platform.
“Less than 20 percent is actually needed for Twitter to work!” he said.
Can Twitter really break?
Professor Haskell-Dowland said we were likely to see “a deterioration” of Twitter, but not the death of the platform.
“I would be very surprised if we saw a complete failure of the platform. But it will certainly almost inevitably lose some functionality,” he said.
“It will probably suffer from unavailability for long periods, probably during big events – and the World Cup would be natural – but it would survive.”
Because Twitter is a large, cloud-based platform spread across many servers around the world, Professor Haskell-Dowland said there were many complex systems to maintain to keep it running, and it took a large team of people to do that work .
“The systems are generally pretty reliable, but there’s a very large team of people who sit behind the scenes and keep an eye on things,” he said.
“And I think that’s where we’re going to start to see the problems that while the systems may be generally reliable, they’re not perfect.”
A now-former Twitter engineer wasn’t as optimistic, telling the Associated Press that “everything could break” now that some engineering teams are said to consist of just three or four people.
Peter Clowes, an engineer who resigned from Twitter, tweeted that while some believed the site would collapse, he thought it was a “maybe” but wasn’t entirely sure.
Elon Musk has posted a laughing face emoji on Twitter to shrug off the platform’s collapse, and shared photos from a meeting with the company’s engineers.
What can happen if Twitter starts to fail?
Professor Haskell-Dowland said there was a risk of a major data breach at Twitter if there were not enough staff to detect problems with the platform.
“If we see something on the scale of Optus or Medibank – if it were to hit the Twitter platforms and there was no one around to stop it or detect it and mitigate the problem, then it’s very possible you could see a bigger data breach for the likes of Twitter,” he said.
Software engineer Gergely Orosz, who has previously worked for Uber, Skype and Microsoft, wrote that for Twitter, at worst, it would bring the site down “for days.”
He said this was “highly unlikely, but in the realm of possibility”, and would possibly see the site lose some data before things get back up and running.
The best-case scenario, according to Mr. Orosz, would see Twitter experience “small outages for weeks,” as the company tries to hire new people and avoid major outages.
He also said there is a chance security breaches could take place, which could lead to more regulatory scrutiny.
Google software engineer François Chollet said the biggest risk was not Twitter going down, but a weakening of its ability to deal with issues such as moderation, security, bots, fraudsters and the site’s reliability.
“You don’t know when it’s going to show up. But when it does, good luck,” he said.
“There is no clear replacement” for Twitter
Some Twitter users have already left the platform since Musk’s takeover, and while competitors like Mastodon have reported a flurry of new sign-ups, Twitter is still seen as a vital part of the internet’s social infrastructure.
Social media researcher Anjana Susarla of Michigan State University wrote in The Conversation that “if Twitter were to collapse, there is no clear replacement in sight”.
She argued that “if Twitter were to go down, the loss would reverberate around the world,” as data from the platform is routinely used for important things like detecting security threats, sharing information in emergencies, and open-source intelligence and fact-checking — as seen amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Professor Haskell-Downland said Twitter remained an important platform and any problems with its service “would have a huge impact” on businesses, governments and individual users.
“A lot of people use it as a source of information and news, and rely on it for communication,” he said.
“So it’s going to have a huge impact if it completely goes away.”