Twitter had a turbulent 2017. While the company made some promising product changes over the past year, it also spent much of its time apologizing for a series of miscues that began in January and carried through to December.
You could look at Twitter’s year of stumbles, apologies, and adjustments as an indication that the social platform can’t get its act together. But perhaps there’s a silver lining: It appears Twitter is taking some long-overlooked feedback to heart, and is working to fix deeply rooted problems such as harassment, abuse, and polarization. Either way you look at it, 2017 was an eventful year for the never-boring social service.
January: The @POTUS Transition Debacle
Twitter started off the year by botching the @POTUS account transition between outgoing president Barack Obama and incoming President Donald Trump. The company made 560,000 people unwittingly follow Donald Trump’s @POTUS account, including some who had signed up to follow Obama’s @POTUS44 archive account, and others who unfollowed the @POTUS account in the past. Uh oh.
“This was a mistake, it wasn't right, we own it, and we apologize. No excuses,” Jack Dorsey said in response to the incident, delivering a line that might as well have been Twitter’s informal 2017 slogan.
February: An Ex-CEO Says Sorry (Again), A List Of Scientists Needs A Fix
The stumbles continued in February when a reporter pointed out that Twitter’s recommended follow list for Tech and Science didn’t include any women.
Also in February, Twitter’s ex-CEO Dick Costolo apologized for not reigning in the rampant abuse taking place on the platform while he was in charge. “I take responsibility for not taking the bull by the horns,” he said. Twitter is still trying to clean up that mess.
March, April: A Short Break
These were good months for Twitter. Twitter did not apologize for anything
May: Political Regrets
Another former CEO joined the apology tour in May. Twitter cofounder and former CEO Ev Williams said he was sorry if Twitter played a role in electing Donald Trump. “It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” Williams told the New York Times. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.” It was a remarkable statement, given that social tech platforms don’t seem to want to take responsibility for what happens inside their walls. It came in response to Trump’s statement: “Without the tweets, I wouldn't be here.”
In other politics-related apologies, Twitter COO Anthony Noto suggested Twitter be used as an alternative to press briefings after President Trump suggested he might cancel them.
Noto later apologized for the “confusion” and said, "I don't support cancelling press briefing."
June, July, August, September: The Calm Before The Storm
Twitter was able to take a deep breath over the summer. But it still struggled to gets its anti-harassment efforts into gear. After being provided in July with 27 examples of harassment its moderation team had left up on its platform, Twitter told BuzzFeed News, “We are firmly committed to continuing to improve our tools and processes.”
October: The Rose McGowan Incident, Foreign Election Interference
In October, Twitter came under fire for restricting actor Rose McGowan’s account while she detailed her allegations of film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse and misconduct. Twitter restricted the account because McGowan posted a private phone number, but it admitted it wasn’t clear enough about its policies and decisions, and it promised to change. “We need to be a lot more transparent in our actions in order to build trust,” Jack Dorsey tweeted in response to the issue.
Also in October, Twitter blocked an ad from Republican senate candidate Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, telling her campaign it could run the ad if it took out the line, "We stopped the sale of baby body parts." After public backlash, Twitter reversed course. “After further review, we have made the decision to allow the content in question from Rep. Blackburn’s campaign ad to be promoted on our ads platform,” a spokesperson said.
Twitter also said it would begin displaying promoted-only ads in a "transparency center." These so-called "dark ads" are viewable only to people targeted by them, creating opportunities for bad actors to try to pull people apart with polarizing messaging.
And after offering Russian television network RT 15% of its share of US election advertising, Twitter reversed its approach toward the network — which the US intelligence community calls "the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” — and banned it from advertising on its platform.
November: The White Nationalist Verification Snafu, The @realDonaldTrump Deactivation
After verifying white nationalist and Charlottesville organizer Jason Keller, Twitter decided that its approach to verification maybe wasn’t the best.
Though it had told users for years that verification wasn’t an endorsement, Twitter conceded that many see its blue checkmark as a sign of legitimacy, and it stopped all verification so it could figure out a new system. “We realized some time ago the system is broken and needs to be reconsidered,” Dorsey said in response to the incident. “And we failed by not doing anything about it. Working now to fix faster.”
December: Backtracking On Explanations
To end the year, Twitter delivered its most confusing apology. After President Trump tweeted an anti-Muslim video, Twitter initially said it left the video up because gave people a chance to see “every side of an issue.” But the next day, Dorsey gave an entirely different reason: The video never violated Twitter rules in the first place. “We mistakenly pointed to the wrong reason we didn’t take action on the videos from earlier this week,” he said. “We’re still looking critically at all of our current policies, and appreciate all the feedback.”
Here’s to 2018.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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