The #GuyAdams Controversy: Twitter Builds Another Wall. And That’s A Good Thing.

Now that Twitter is a media company, building a walled garden around “its” content, it has two customers.  The people who use the platform to share and read content (formerly known as “users,” but now better referred to as “the audience”), and the advertisers.  And, like other media companies, it now needs to build another wall:  a Chinese Wall between its advertising and editorial departments.

It has long been known in the media industry that sometimes the interests of audience and advertiser are not the same.  Journalists want to tell the truth in order to maintain reader trust, even if that means negative coverage for an advertiser. Advertisers will threaten to pull budgets in order to influence editorial coverage. Ambitious advertising sales people advocate for preferential placement or access for their clients. Publishers need to mediate between the two.

This is why, in most well-respected traditional media businesses, there is something referred to as a Chinese Wall between editorial and advertising.  This Chinese Wall — the belief that advertising concerns will not influence editorial decisions, a culture that may even dictate that certain things are not discussed when editors are present — is designed, above all, to protect the interest of the audience (or “users”) of a media brand.

Yesterday, by apologizing  for suspending the @GuyAdams account for the wrong reasons, Twitter showed that it, too, understands that it needs to build a Chinese Wall.

The Background On The #GuyAdams Controversy

A quick summary for those of you who do not obsessively follow media and technology stories like I do:  Guy Adams is a reporter for The Independent.  He has been using his Twitter account to criticize NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, and sent a tweet that included the email address of the President of NBC Olympics.

Without advance notice, Twitter suspended his account, sending him an email that he was in violation of Twitter Rules related to privacy.  Adams claims he was not in violation since the email address he sent out was “public,” demands his account be reinstated immediately, and writes an article about censorship, in which he accuses NBC and Twitter of colluding to “censor” his account.

Cue mayhem:  social media users, bloggers and media brands around the world write thousands of words about the nature of online privacy, censorship in the age of Twitter and the conflicts of interest created by inviting in the big-spending advertisers.

For a while, the story becomes murky.  There was much speculation that NBC was responsible for requesting his account be suspended, NBC then making a statement that no, in fact it was Twitter who had alerted NBC’s social media team to the tweet, and showed NBC how to file a complaint.

More gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands, and Twitter users threatening to boycott NBC and stop using Twitter altogether (myself among them).  Guy Adams gets to be interviewed on CNN.

Doing The Right Thing

Then, late yesterday, Twitter un-suspended the @guyadams Twitter account, and posted an explanation, and an apology, written by its General Counsel Alex Macgillivray on the Twitter blog.  After clarifying how its “Trust and Safety” team typically works to protect the privacy of individual users, he wrote this (bold emphasis mine):

That said, we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. 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, as has now been reported publicly. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

As I stated earlier, we do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us. We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is — whether a business partner, celebrity or friend. As of earlier today, the account has been unsuspended, and we will actively work to ensure this does not happen again.

My Interpretation Of What Really Happened

Here’s the translation:  an eager-beaver Twitter ad sales rep was paying attention to the criticism that Twitter users were piling on his or her client (something that NBC’s social media team should have been doing itself, but that’s another story).

Seeing the tweet that included an email address, and most likely genuinely believing that this tweet was a Twitter Rules violation, the eager sales rep, wanting to score extra points with her big client, quickly alerts his or her contacts at NBC, and educates them about how to file a complaint.

NBC, placing faith in the guidance its partners at Twitter are offering, fills out the form, which is processed by the Twitter legal team (perhaps in a way that’s expedited by the sales person), resulting in the suspension and above-mentioned shit storm.

Told this way, its a story about a lot of naive decisions being made by people that are not necessarily ill-intended, but don’t quite understand the nature of the toy they’re playing with.  Hell hath no fury like Twitter users who suspect that they are being censored, and NBC would have been far better served by not getting involved, adding fuel to the #NBCfail fire, and drawing far more intention to Guy Adams and his Tweet than he would have gotten had they left this alone.

And Why This Twitter Wall is a Good Thing

Twitter says the Trust & Safety of its users is more important than its ad dollars -  Do you believe them.This was a screw-up.  Twitter and NBC have both had their reputation tarnished by this incident.

But Twitter has  stepped up, taken responsibility, and sent a clear signal:  while they messed up this time, they are committed to defending the interest of users against over the interests of  their advertising sales team, their  advertisers, or other celebrities who may think they are entitled to special treatment.  Twitter users who have more money or influence will not get preferential treatment over every other Twitter user.

And this shows that, perhaps, Twitter understands a few things about what makes Twitter Twitter after all.

What do you think? Is Twitter serious about putting “Trust & Safety” ahead of ad dollars?  Or am I letting them off the hook too fast?