In an embarrassing stumble during one of its biggest turns on the world stage, Twitter admitted Tuesday it wrongly shut down a British journalist’s account after he taunted NBC, Twitter’s Olympics partner, in a tweet.
How far its apology goes to mollify thousands of angry Twitter users remains to be seen. What’s clear is that for about 48 hours, instead of being the vehicle for news about the Olympics, the San Francisco-based company was the news.
“It’s a marketing nightmare” for the company, said Brian Solis, principal analyst for the Altimeter Group and author of “The End of Business as Usual.”
The controversy started Sunday when the account of Guy Adams, a correspondent for The Independent and a vocal critic of NBC’s Olympics coverage, was suspended after he tweeted a corporate email address for a network executive, which Twitter claimed was a violation of its privacy rules.
Twitter restored his account Tuesday, admitting that “we did mess up” when its staff encouraged NBC — which Twitter is teaming with for Olympics coverage — to file the complaint that resulted in the suspension.
The stumble is especially vexing because it involves free speech, which Twitter has championed.
“People will question what Twitter’s role is in the realm of free speech,” Solis said. “It is free speech that gave rise to Twitter’s platform as a powerful form of sharing and aggregating human voices, as we saw with the Arab Spring.”
Trevor Timm, an activist and blogger at the Internet advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Twitter needs to learn from this incident.
“This is one of their most high-profile media partnerships,” Timm said. “We’re sure to see other partnerships with Facebook and Twitter and others. It’s very important that they don’t tarnish their integrity in these situations. Clearly here, NBC received special privileges because they were working closely with Twitter.”
More than 15 million fans are following and participating in the Olympic experience via Twitter and other social media platforms, as are a good proportion of the 10,800 athletes, according to an International Olympic Committee spokesman.
Though no money reportedly changed hands in the NBC-Twitter partnership, it represents a powerful stage for Twitter to market itself to potential advertisers.
Social media companies understand that “trust and authenticity” are what keep users coming back, said Clara Shih, chief executive officer of Hearsay Social, a consulting company that helps big business reach customers through social media.
Global attention has also been drawn to Twitter because of heated postings by fans and athletes. According to The Associated Press:
- Two athletes have been kicked out for racist tweets.
- A fan was arrested Tuesday after a series of threatening posts, including one in which he vowed to drown a British diver, and another in which he told the athlete he had failed his dead father by not winning.
- An athlete’s Twitter campaign objecting to sponsorship restrictions went viral under the hashtag “WeDemandChange.”
- And finally, the suspension of Adams’ account.
Adams returned to Twitter on Tuesday with a series of tweets, saying that the company had informed him that, “We have just received an update from the complainant retracting their original request, therefore your account has been unsuspended.”
“Our interest was in protecting our executive, not suspending the user from Twitter,” an NBC spokesman said Tuesday. “We didn’t initially understand the repercussions of our complaint, but now that we do, we have rescinded it.”
Twitter General Counsel Alex Macgillivray said in a blog post Tuesday that the microblogging service does not actively monitor users’ accounts nor is its staff supposed to encourage users to file complaints. And if there is a privacy violation, it must be reported by the person, or their legal representative, whose private information has been posted.
In the British reporter’s case, that’s not what happened.
“We want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up,” Macgillivray wrote. “The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.”
Furthermore, it turns out that the NBC’s executive’s corporate email address had been previously published and tweeting it was not a violation of Twitter policy.
“I don’t think this is necessarily a defining moment,” Timm said. “I think it’s how they react in the future. Everybody makes mistakes.”
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