Olympic coverage tweet puts Twitter at centre of scandal

Twitter is typically the medium where scandals break out, but rarely does the microblogging site find itself at the centre of one. But that changed Tuesday.

Microblogging site reverses ban on NBC-bashing journalist

The London 2012 Olympic Games have been dubbed the Social Games as spectators take to Twitter and Facebook in record numbers. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

Twitter is typically the medium where scandals break out, but rarely does the microblogging site find itself at the centre of one.

That changed Tuesday after a series of developments that played out in real-time on the social media platform.

The saga began Friday when Guy Adams, a Los Angeles-based reporter for the British daily newspaper The Independent, joined a growing chorus of frustrated Americans complaining on Twitter about NBC's delayed Olympics television coverage. But the journalist took it one step further, posting the work email address for NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel and encouraging others to contact him.

Twitter suspended Adams' account — and the story went viral Monday as users questioned Twitter's cozy corporate connection to NBC, a partner during the Olympics, and how its policy of forbidding "non-public, private emails" applied to a corporate email account.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Twitter apologized, sending a blog entry out into the Twitterverse in hopes of undoing the damage on the same medium it was done.

"We did mess up," Twitter's general counsel Alex Macgillivray wrote in the blog. "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."

Twitter's policy clearly states it does not proactively report or remove content on the behalf of others. The company vowed to ensure this does not happen again — and suggested a rethink on its policy of considering work emails to be private.

'This, too, shall pass'

"They’ve become more of a 'business,' whereas a year ago they might have looked at things a little bit differently."—WebiMax founder Kenneth Wisnefski

But after two days of Tweets critical of Twitter, is the damage done?

In the fickle world of the internet, where attention spans are as short as a Tweet, digital communications analyst Mark Blevis says it's unlikely.

"I call it the 'This, too, shall pass' effect," said Blevis on the phone from Ottawa. "It won't be forgotten. But the relevance of the issue or the impact of the issue will drop to a level where it just becomes noise."

For Kenneth Wisnefski, founder and CEO of internet marketing company WebiMax, the story marks a seminal moment in the growth of Twitter from a startup into a six-year-old company.

"They've become more of a 'business,' whereas a year ago they might have looked at things a little bit differently," said Wisnefski.

"From a business standpoint, I think it's going to give people an opportunity to give some conjecture about what Twitter's next step in the process of their evolution."

Users took to Twitter to protest what they perceived as a breach of trust and freedom of expression.

'Suspect' behaviour

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, shown during a press conference before the Olympics, may have to rethink the company's business relations (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

American journalist Jeff Jarvis was vocal on both Twitter and his blog, BuzzMachine, noting that while Twitter "behaved honorably" in its famous delay of a maintenance shutdown during a crucial moment in the Arab Spring, in business matters it has acted in a "suspect manner."

"I believe it needs to prove to us that it is not beholden to sponsors any more than it is to governments," wrote Jarvis.

It's less than a week since Twitter proudly tweeted its partnership with NBC as an attempt to "bring U.S. fans closer than ever to the Olympic games."

The partnership, with NBC Olympics, a division of the NBC Sports Group, includes an Olympics event page at, plus on-air promotions across NBCUniversal's networks that air Olympic programming.

The outlook for Twitter was looking rosy when the 2012 Olympic Games began, minus a brief blackout the day before that it quickly apologized for. Around that time, The New York Times reported, citing unnamed sources, that Apple was mulling an investment in Twitter, one that could push its value to more than $10 billion, up from an $8.4-billion valuation the previous year.

Freedom of expression vs. business interests

And its performance at the Olympics — where spectators amassed on the platform in such high volume it disrupted electronic updates to broadcasters on racers' times — was deemed gold-medal worthy by some.

"It's brought back to attention the value of Twitter and in my eyes, given it a lot more value than before the Olympics started," said Wisnefski.


For a look at how the Guy Adams story unfolded on Twitter, see our Storify.

Twitter has more than 500 million users, with about 170 million who are regularly active, according to recent numbers by analytics firm Semiocast.

Though many analysts suggest #Twitterfail will be a blip in the ever-steady stream of 340 million tweets a day, some are hoping it raises questions about a larger issue.

Andrew Clement, a professor in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information, says the issue is symptomatic of how popular social media can serve as "robust fora for free expression" but also how business interests can override the platform's principles. 

Clement says he'll be watching to see what rules get established as the story plays itself out.

Blevis, however, says outside the "passionate few" concerned with internet freedom and democratic rights, people will probably move on to the next scandal by tomorrow.

"People have short memories," he said.