Before Elon Musk made her one of his most powerful lieutenants at Twitter, Ella Irwin spent four years at Amazon, where her intensity inspired both respect and terror. The pressure was ceaseless; her emails landed at all hours. “She made me cry my first week,” a former employee told The Daily Beast. One space in the office became known as the “cry room.”
It wasn’t all on Irwin. Under Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s culture was notoriously brutal. But her personality seemed like an ideal fit.
“I have not had a director as smart or cutthroat as Ella,” recalled another employee, who praised her attention to detail. “I have never learned more… I think sometimes she just missed a human piece of how to treat people.”
Now, after a stint at the tech firm Twilio, Irwin has brought that ethos to Twitter, where Elon Musk is employing even harsher tactics to turn the platform around. (Sleeping at the office is tacitly encouraged. Also, consider bringing your own toilet paper.)
As head of trust and safety, Irwin’s responsibilities include mitigating harmful content like hate speech, weighing in on account bans and suspensions, and sometimes serving as the platform’s de facto spokesperson. She helms the product, policy and operations teams tasked with keeping users safe from fraud and abuse, and also helps to resolve user issues. Adding to the challenge: Musk has decimated Twitter’s headcount, including content moderators and human rights experts, and eliminated its advisory trust and safety council.
Some of Irwin’s former subordinates described her as acutely hierarchical and therefore unlikely to push back against Musk. Already, however, she and her boss have fallen out of lockstep—though perhaps as the result of dysfunctional communication rather than principled disagreement.
Two days before Christmas, after Reuters published a story on the disappearance of Twitter’s #ThereIsHelp suicide prevention feature—which insiders told the outlet was removed at Musk’s behest—Irwin gave the publication a statement confirming it had been deactivated. The feature was “temporarily removed” while Twitter was “fixing and revamping our prompts,” she said. But, as Ars Technica pointed out, Musk appeared to contradict his deputy the next day, tweeting in response to Reuters: “False, it is still there.” He fired off another tweet calling the report “fake news” and declaring, “Twitter doesn’t prevent suicide.”
For her part, Irwin told The Daily Beast: “Elon did not actually contradict my specific comments, however he did comment on the overall narrative of a specific press story being false.”
“Elon did ask the team to remove and fix the many broken prompts that were impacting user experience and mirror Google’s approach in terms of the prompts that we display,” she added. “He did not catalog the prompts or point out specific ones, such as the suicide prompt to remove other than to show us a few examples of ones that were broken or outdated.”
And she disagreed with the suggestion by former colleagues that she was unlikely to challenge Musk. “You can’t work in this space without having a backbone,” she told us, adding, “If you have seen Elon’s direction to his teams it includes the fact that he expects you to correct him or tell him if he is wrong (not just blindly follow direction). I actually try to only hire and retain employees that have the ability to push back successfully and have a backbone as well.”
Irwin joined Twitter in June and resigned shortly after Musk’s October takeover, only to be persuaded to return amid a tidal wave of layoffs and resignations. She was soon appointed the platform’s head of trust and safety, replacing Yoel Roth, who quit after just two weeks under Musk. “One of my limits was if Twitter starts being ruled by dictatorial edict rather than by policy… there’s no longer a need for me in my role, doing what I do,” Roth later said at a Knight Foundation conference.
Musk, who had previously defended Roth from conservative attacks, turned on his former employee. He amplified a smear campaign that included a tweet suggesting Roth, who is openly gay, was accepting of pedophilia. As a result of Musk’s QAnon-esque tactic, Roth reportedly faced a torrent of threats and was forced to flee his home.
So far, Irwin seems to have embraced the new position, which is the most public facing of her career. In the absence of a communication department, which Musk disbanded in layoffs, Irwin is frequently quoted in the press on Twitter’s behalf.
In recent weeks, the 47-year-old tech veteran has also emerged as the functionary who provided screenshots of internal company systems to journalist Bari Weiss, who reported on the so-called “Twitter Files.” One Washington Post report revealed that Weiss was given access to Twitter’s Slack system, with Irwin serving as her chaperone.
Irwin told us she didn’t hand the Twitter Files to reporters or anyone else. “My only involvement with Bari was to pull up accounts she had questions about (since we did not give her access) and ensure that she could see their status/enforcement history. That’s it,” Irwin said. “Had no other visibility or insight into the Twitter Files or what would be posted or conclusions being drawn from accounts reviewed.”
Jack Sweeney, the creator of a bot that tracks Musk’s private plane, claimed last month that Twitter had applied “visibility filtering,” or VF, to his @elonjet handle so other users couldn’t see it. Before his account was suspended, Sweeney tweeted a screenshot of a company Slack message (which he says a Twitter whistleblower sent him) indicating Irwin ordered staff to “please apply heavy VF to @elonjet immediately.”
Irwin has also played a part in shadow-banning or suspending select Twitter users, including prominent journalists. When Twitter suspended multiple reporters for allegedly violating rules on doxxing (many of them had reported on the ElonJet controversy), company systems indicated the time-outs were at the “direction of Ella.”
Seven former colleagues speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Daily Beast they weren’t surprised Irwin ended up at Twitter.
Co-workers and subordinates described her as hard-nosed and passionate, with an eye for uncovering deficiencies across an organization. At times, that drive created workplace enemies and came at a cost to employee morale. “She wants to be well liked, she’s just not always great at it,” another one of her workers recounted.
Immediately before joining Twitter, Irwin served as Twilio’s vice president for consumer trust for two years. From 2015 to 2020, she was a director at Amazon targeting marketplace abuse, including fraudulent reviews and the sale of counterfeit items. At the e-commerce giant, Irwin would occasionally handle customers’ complaints that had been emailed to then-CEO Jeff Bezos, who would forward the messages with a single ominous question mark.
One former coworker at both tech companies, who credited Irwin with taking them under her wing and boosting their career in tech, described her endearingly as “a bit of a pitbull” who “has jumped into organizations that have a challenge to present.”
“When she comes into places, especially at Amazon, I think there was a big kind of disruption,” the person said, “because she was identifying areas of weakness across the company org in a way that eventually put her in a position overseeing those areas.” As a result, the ex-colleague added, roles were taken away from other employees. “But at the end of the day, it’s a meritocracy,” the person continued. “I think from an executive perspective, she was viewed very much as a problem solver.” (A separate colleague, however, told us they believed Irwin presented skewed data to make other divisions at Amazon seem ineffective. In response to this claim, Irwin told The Daily Beast that she had “no idea what that is referring to” and that “the level of scrutiny involved at Amazon for any data presented however would make this unlikely.”)
Another Amazonian who worked under Irwin said she was a “driving force” but, from their perspective, pitted employees against each other in an already dog-eat-dog environment. According to the ex-employee, Irwin also demanded underlings finish projects even if it meant staying at the office overnight.
“There were plenty of times that I saw her just destroy people in a conference room,” the person recalled. “‘Bring people to tears’ kind of stuff. And if you weren’t strong enough to weather that kind of storm, you weren’t strong enough to be on the team. And that was promoted at Amazon at the time. That is probably very similar to what the environment at Twitter is now with Elon Musk in control.”
In one instance emblematic of Irwin’s management style, a pair of Amazon employees spent roughly a month preparing a six-page memo, plus appendices, according to two people familiar with the situation. They walked into a meeting with Irwin to present it. “She read the first line, and was like, ‘This is garbage.’” one of the people said. The meeting abruptly ended.
Irwin told The Daily Beast she doesn’t recall this episode and that “I am never rude or disrespectful to anyone.” She said she has, however, been “fairly direct” with teams if they missed something, as “Amazon has a very high bar for document writing.”
The Twitter VP also said she was unaware of an employee “cry room” and that “frankly it would have been hard to have such a room as you would never be able to continuously use the same conference room in any busy Amazon building.”
“I obviously don’t recall the specific situation being described with the employee who cried but I have led thousands of employees over the past seven years and that includes having to do re-orgs, address performance issues or terminate employees so certainly there were situations where employees cried,” Irwin added. “I try to be transparent, direct and fair in all interactions with employees and people in general.”
Employees said Irwin also created a document about herself outlining her background, managerial preferences, and deficiencies. And she attributed her intense work ethic to her background as a gymnast, two people familiar with the comments said.
Another former colleague at Amazon claimed that Irwin chose “golden folks” who were protected, while she burned out those outside her favor. The coworker said that while they had been part of Irwin’s lucky inner circle, they “personally would never want to work with Ella again.” (Others said they would consider working with her in the future, and at least one person said they hoped to land a gig under her at Twitter.)
“Ella’s MO is to aggressively point out failures and take ownership of key initiatives, then throw warm bodies at the problems at the expense of all of the individual contributors’ time and burnout. Then, when she can’t deliver all she has promised, she vacates the position for another company, leaving the mess behind for someone else to clean up,” the former member of her inner circle said.
“What she did at Amazon, when she came in… she started making enemies and pointing fingers at systems that have gaps in them, and said, ‘Well, if you can’t handle this problem, we will.’”
The onetime colleague described Irwin as a dog lover, “introvert by nature,” and someone with a sense of humor who enjoys an occasional cigar. “I’ve definitely smoked a cigar with her,” they said. The person added that Irwin was passionate about creating more diversity in the workplace and launched a council for women in leadership.
“She is a force to be reckoned with,” they said. “She makes careers. There’s no doubt about that. It’s just that there’s casualties along the way.”
In recent weeks, Irwin has been handling queries from Twitter users about why certain accounts were suspended or locked. After one user claimed the person behind @monitoringbias was locked out for tweeting, “Blacks did NOT commit 53% of murders in the US in 2021. They committed 60.4% of them,” Irwin responded days later and regranted access. (The handle’s bio states it is “Monitoring the only bigotry, discrimination, and institutional and media bias that’s socially acceptable in America—that against white and Asian people.”)
Following @monitoringbias’s reinstatement, the user praised Irwin’s team for stepping in to help, tweeting, “This bodes well for Twitter’s future.”
In another case, after a user said they suspected people were being suspended thanks to “woke mobs” reporting rival accounts, Irwin again intervened. “Our team has been carefully reviewing thousands of suspended accounts for the past month, including accounts noted in this thread,” she wrote on Dec. 28. “Users that did not engage in threats of harm/violence, fraud or other illegal activity are being reinstated. Will need ~30 days to finish reviewing.”
Dozens of users have tagged Irwin seeking similar assistance. “Good news for those of us awaiting reinstatement of our primary accounts banned for Covid WrongSpeak,” another user tweeted. “According to Ella, that should be happening within 30 days! Thank you @ellagirwin & @elonmusk for making twitter great again!”
In an email to The Daily Beast, Irwin said, “I interface with many accounts every single day (basically just scanning for user concerns) not just people suspended for misinformation or posting offensive tweets in the past. That is part of our work on implementing the general amnesty reinstatements.”
Behnam Rezaei, who was one of the last pre-Musk executives at Twitter when he resigned as head of product and engineering last week, told The Daily Beast that Irwin is “one of the most principled and mature executives in this field.”
“She is very even keeled,” Rezaei said. “Also very pragmatic. I also think she is a great people leader who has helped Twitter trust and safety org navigate these turbulent times. She is also very good at capturing different opinions and perspectives of an issue. Also she is very comfortable expressing her unbiased opinion to Elon and others, something that is rare.”
The reaction to Irwin’s work, however, hasn’t always been laudatory. “You platformed Neo Nazis,” one person tweeted on Dec. 28. “If you’re wondering where you fit in the historical lens, congrats, you’re with the Nazis. That’s now your legacy Ella.” On Dec. 16, a user bashed Irwin while referring to a pejorative nickname for Musk: “Congratulations to @ellagirwin for being Space Karen’s useful idiot, hope your reputation survives unscathed.”
“Hope elon paid you well for your soul,” another user added on Jan. 3.
According to researchers, hate speech skyrocketed after Musk took the reins in late October. Within weeks of his purchase, mentions of the N-word rose from an average 1,282 times a day to 3,876 instances each day, and usage of a homophobic slurs jumped from 2,506 to 3,964. (After The New York Times published a story on the research, Musk tweeted that the findings were “utterly false” and argued: “Hate speech impressions (# of times tweet was viewed) continue to decline, despite significant user growth!”
To some who know her, the chaos at the platform is unlikely to shake Irwin. Said one of her former employees: “I think she thrives in environments that are on fire.”