Much of the vitriol over the (non-permanent) suspension of The Independent's Guy Adams' Twitter account following tweets critical of NBC's Olympic coverage has been directed at the network, and that's fair. It was an NBC complaint that got Adams banned, after all, and trying to stifle criticism that way is certainly problematic for a media entity. However, Twitter deserves a lot of the flack here too, especially since general counsel Alex Macgillivray wrote that "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." Macgillivray condemned that behavior, and rightly so, but this could provide an important lesson for Twitter. If they're going to be a trusted source for news and opinion, it's critical for the company to ensure their behaviour doesn't skew towards protecting advertisers and corporate partners.
The line between advertising and editorial content is one every media company has to walk carefully, and the fact is that Twitter is turning into a media company. It's a unique one, as its content comes from a much wider array of sources than usual and is chiefly created by people outside the company, but Twitter is still essentially presenting itself as a vehicle for news and opinion, similar to most existing media outlets. Reputable media outlets have to make sure they don't just turn into a mouthpiece for their business partners, though.
Twitter generally gets this, and it's why efforts like their "Promoted Tweets" are fine; they're clearly presented as advertising, so they're not all that distinct from an ad you'd see in a newspaper. However, it's working with corporate partners that proved the challenge in Adams' case. There's nothing wrong with Twitter teaming up with NBC to enhance its brand and boost its Olympic profile, but that shouldn't have any impact on what Twitter users say about NBC. Essentially, the company itself is the advertising department, while users are providing the editorial; users shouldn't be limited by Twitter's business deals, and partners like NBC should recognize that it's not the company criticizing them, but merely users of its service. As Katie Rogers writes in The Guardian, the stands Twitter has taken on behalf of free speech elsewhere make this kind of action stand out even more:
"Twitter will defend users if it's a question of having to set a new, uncomfortable precedent for giving up data – legal battles waged on behalf of WikiLeaks and Occupy protesters prove this – but protecting itself when an unwieldy conversation about a network partner swings right out of its grasp is another thing entirely."
What both Twitter and NBC would be smart to take away from the Adams incident is that efforts to quiet dissent or alter media content to be more favourable to business partners often backfire, and when they do, they tend to do so spectacularly. Sure, Adams' initial tweets got some attention, but his ban and subsequent reinstatement received much more play worldwide, and the response made both NBC and Twitter look bad.
The partnership between the two companies isn't a bad thing, and it has the potential to work well if it's kept aboveboard, if the content from it is clearly identified and if the business side of Twitter doesn't interfere with the editorial side (in this case, users' ability to comment on NBC). Juggling advertising and content isn't an easy thing to do, and most media outlets eventually wind up with some issues along these lines, so Twitter isn't alone. The company would be wise to recognize these problems, learn from others' mistakes and proactively work to make sure that the business side doesn't interfere with its users, though. Comment inevitably includes criticism; the question's just how you handle it, and plenty will be watching eagerly to see if Twitter does better next time.