Days after too many tweets overburdened data networks and disrupted television coverage of a cycling event, two Twitter-related controversies have thrust the social media site back into the spotlight - and not in a good way.
Having formed a media partnership with NBC, Twitter was set to play a major role in the coverage of the Olympics, dubbed the first social media Games. But the site is being lambasted for having suspended the account of a British journalist who was critical of NBC’s coverage of the events.
Guy Adams, a Los Angeles correspondent for the Independent, was banned from Twitter after posting a series of tweets commenting on what he - and much of the Twittersphere - thought was appalling Olympic broadcasting on the part of the US network.
"America's left coast forced to watch Olympic ceremony on SIX HOUR time delay. Disgusting money-grabbing by @NBColympics," he wrote of the so-called #NBCFail.
But the tweet that earned Adams the much-hyped suspension is one in which he urged unhappy viewers to email NBC Olympics boss Gary Zenkel.
“The man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven't started yet is Gary Zenkel. Tell him what u think!,” read the tweet, which listed Zenkel’s corporate email address in the message.
Christopher McCloskey, NBC’s vice president of communications, told the Telegraph that the company filed its complaint because Adams’ tweet violated Twitter’s privacy policies, which outlaw the posting of email addresses not available online; Adams insists that it was a corporate email, not a personal account, and that it had in fact been published on the Internet before his tweet.
"Our social media dept was actually alerted to it by Twitter and then we filled out the form and submitted it,” McCloskey said, raising alarm that Twitter was, in effect, censoring Adams. The social network has maintained that it does not actively monitor users’ tweets and has thus far not made any comments about McCloskey’s allegation that the complaint originated with Twitter itself.
The ban has angered users, who are urging the site to explain its reasoning, especially given its commercial relationship with NBC.
(UPDATE: Twitter now says it has reinstated the account of Mr Adams, but has yet to offer an explanation as to why it suspended the journalist to begin with,)
Meanwhile, a teenage Twitter user who sent abusive tweets to Olympic diver Tom Daley has been arrested on suspicion of “malicious communications,” Dorset police have confirmed.
The 17-year-old, going by Rileyy_69, tweeted “you let your dad down i hope you know that” to Daley after the Olympian and his partner placed fourth in the men’s synchronised 10m platform diving event yesterday. The reference is to Daley’s father who died last year from brain cancer and was a public and vocal supporter of the diver.
After being retweeted by Daley, and presumably being attacked by his fans, Rileyy_69 apologised for the tweet.
"I'm sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I'm just annoyed we didn't win I'm sorry tom accept my apology,” he wrote, adding “"please i don't want to be hated I'm just sorry you didn't win i was rooting for you pal to do britain all proud just so upset.”
But, presumably after a punishing backlash from Daley’s fans, the teen reverted to sending vile and threatening messages to Daley and other Twitter users.
No word yet on whether or not police will charge Rileyy_69 with a crime, and whether or not the investigation is related to tweets sent to Daley or to follow-up conversations with other Twitter users.
"I suppose that social media in one sense is fantastic, but turned the wrong way round it is very, very personal and it destroys people's lives,” Olympic Village deputy mayor Duncan Goodhew told the BBC. “So I think people should be much more careful about what they say."
Both cases are still unfolding, but will likely reignite vigorous debates over the role of social media, and Twitter in particular, in the public sphere.
Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand was fined yesterday by the Football Association for posting a racially charged message about footballer Ashley Cole; a Greek athlete was expelled from her Olympic team after posting a racist tweet last week; and in March, a student was hit with a 56-day prison sentence for sending racist tweets to footballer Fabrice Muamba.
Of course, all of these instances occurred in different contexts and under different circumstances but, ultimately, they point to a singular thread - that social media will increasingly be considered a legitimate avenue for communication and, accordingly, will be treated as such by authorities.
Suspected Internet trolls, like Rileyy_69, are being treated like suspected criminals, not simply the obnoxious pests taking advantage of online anonymity they were once thought to be. And UK courts consistently sided with the victims of trolling and cyber-bullying in several recent precedents.
But as social media becomes more entrenched in our daily lives, more specific policies will have to be put into place to ensure the line between censorship and reasonable policing is a clear one, and that users, like Guy Adams, have their free speech protected in the face of corporate, and otherwise powerful, interests.