Twitter’s Reputation Problem


I am a huge fan of Twitter. Since it was founded in March 2006, this social network has transformed how people communicate and how news is shared. It has connected and empowered people and has created communities around a multitude of subjects around the world. Twitter has become a primary source of news, as well a centre point for reaction to news. But in the last fortnight, Twitter has failed at what it encourages others to do. Twitter has failed to listen. And as a result Twitter has developed a reputation problem.

Twitter is no longer a start-up, though it appears to retain that culture. It is a a channel from where people get their everyday news, from worlds affairs, and consumer and sports, to gossip from friends, family and business colleagues. Twitter forms part of people’s everyday communications channels. And it isn’t just used by the media and creative ‘intelligentsia’, but by people who want to connect and want to be heard. It has become a fantastic tool for campaigners.

Today, Twitter has a reported 200 million active monthly users, over 70% of whom are based in international markets and jurisdictions outside the US. As a result, Twitter needs to show that it cares about the rest of the world, about the different cultures and legal issues.

A few weeks back here in the UK Caroline Criado-Perez, a campaigner who fought to have British novelist Jane Austen on the back of the new £10, was subjected to a barrage of rape threats from people who hid their identity. The attacks against Criado-Perez started after she appeared in the media discussing her campaign to have Jane Austen recognised on the back of this banknote. What followed was, as she describes, a barrage of “about 50 abusive tweets an hour for about 12 hours” threatening rape and violence.

The campaigner decided to contact the social network’s manager of journalism and news Mark Luckie. He though ignored her Tweets and locked his accounts to stop her contacting him. With the threats in the public domain, Caroline reported the matter to the London’s Metropolitan Police who opened an investigation.

Of course because of her campaigning Caroline had the support from well known politicians and journalists, including Stella Creasy MP and Caitlin Moran. And it was these high-profile individuals who helped amplify her call for Twitter to do something about the threats that she was receiving. Twitter stayed quiet and initially refused to engage with the campaigner or journalists who sought clarification on what the network was doing to manage reports of threats. I have to ask the question, what if you are not followed by high-profile people who can help you gain headlines and public discussion? What then, is Twitter working to help the average Joe or Jane?

Twitter’s unwillingness to engage really did them no good with the media. Politicians here in the UK threatened to call Twitter’s senior management to a Select Committee.

It appeared that they were behaving like a junior start-up with little understanding of public relations or reputation management. They certainly did not show any understanding of how the world works outside of Silicon Valley.

A few days later Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge Mary Beard was the subject of similar threats following a programme she led on the BBC. She decide to stand up to the trolls and eventually got an apology, but again not before the media and the police intervened.

Twitter wrote a blog post entailed, ‘We Hear You’. The post tried to resolve the issue, but from a PR perspective did more damage than their strategy of keeping quiet. If this was a press release, and we can treat it as one given that they were responding to criticism, rather than starting the post by accepting the issue, they start by promoting the great services that they are developing.

Here is their opening paragraph:

At Twitter, we work every day to create products that can reach every person on the planet. To do that, we must take a wide range of use cases into consideration when designing interfaces or developing user tools. We want Twitter to work whether you are trying to follow your favourite musician, talk to others about shared interests, or raise the visibility of a human rights issue.’

Fact is, when trying to fight fire you never bring out your marketing speak. A big Twitter #Fail.

Twitter were forced to put somebody forward to talk to the media. That person was Twitter’s own Senior Director of Trust & Safety Del Harvey. On the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky News, the interviews were pure car-crash. There was little sign of media training, little understanding of how the media works in markets outside the US and little insight on solutions to deal with a growing problem for a company that is in the process of going through an IPO. And reputation management experts is what you need at such a critical time.

In separate statements they also kept pushing the line that they need to look to see if people have broken their terms and conditions. So let’s look at these Twitter Rules:

  1. You are responsible for your use of the Services, for any Content you post to the Services, and for any consequences thereof
  2. All Content, whether publicly posted or privately transmitted, is the sole responsibility of the person who originated such Content … Any use or reliance on any Content or materials posted via the Services or obtained by you through the Services is at your own risk
  3. You understand that by using the Services, you may be exposed to Content that might be offensive, harmful, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate, or in some cases, postings that have been mislabeled or are otherwise deceptive
  4. Under no circumstances will Twitter be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to, any errors or omissions in any Content, or any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of any Content posted, emailed, transmitted or otherwise made available via the Services or broadcast elsewhere
  5. Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others
  6. Unlawful Use: You may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content
  7. Twitter strives to protect its users from abuse and spam. User abuse and technical abuse are not tolerated on, and may result in permanent suspension
  8. These Terms and any action related thereto will be governed by the laws of the State of California without regard to or application of its conflict of law provisions or your state or country of residence. All claims, legal proceedings or litigation arising in connection with the Services will be brought solely in the federal or state courts located in San Francisco County, California, United States, and you consent to the jurisdiction of and venue in such courts and waive any objection as to inconvenient forum

What do you think? Did they? It’s clear that they have, but for some reason Twitter is just not wanting to face the issue. And let me say this, free speech as defined by the US Constitution’s First Amendment does not apply in legal jurisdictions outside the US. Free speech in England and Wales is protected by laws in this jurisdiction.

Fact is, from a reputational perspective Twitter finds itself in a mess, especially given that Twitter is hard at work for the up-coming IPO.

They failed to engage in a professional manner when they are the conduit of abusive communications, something that is against the law in many international markets.

They say that they do not want to censure what people say on Twitter, something that I argue is fair enough so long as they enable others to tackle the trolls. They haven’t.

It really is time for Twitter to grow-up and start acting as the great information network that it is. It needs to:

  • Understand the world outside of not just Silicon Valley but the U.S.
  • Have experience PR and repetitional management professionals that can deliver counsel at guidance in the different global markets in which Twitter has a presence
  • Understand that not taking responsibility is just not an option.



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