In today’s world reputation has become more important than the financial or business resources a company can bring to a deal. No company wants to acquire Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) because of its’ reputation as a magnet for bigots and kooks.
On October 17, multiple media sources revealed that both the Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) and Salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM) had dropped plans to buy Twitter. The same reports stated that executives at both companies abandoned their plans because of Twitter’s reputation.
Disney may have been in the final stretches of an acquisition bid, Bloomberg reported. The iconic entertainment conglomerate had even hired investment banks to evaluate a Twitter bid. Twitter’s executive team may have even held a private presentation for Disney CEO Bob Iger and his top advisors.
Then Disney abruptly backed away from the deal; because of Twitter’s reputation as a haven for “bullying and uncivil communications.” Iger’s real motivation in letting Twitter go might have been motivated by more sinister forms of communication.
Did Antisemitism Scuttle Disney’s Twitter Bid
Twitter has become the top social-media venue for Anti-Semitic hate speech in the United States, a report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) charged. The report was released on October 17; the same day that Disney and Salesforce.com dropped their Twitter bids.
Researchers at the ADL found that 2.6 million Twitter messages sent between July 2015 and August 2016 contained language consistent with antisemitism, Tech Crunchreported. The ADL is an American Jewish organization that monitors anti-Semitism.
Many of the Tweets involved attacks on journalists and commentators of Jewish heritage, the ADL alleged. The organization also charged that Anti-Semites and other bigots use Twitter as a recruitment tool.
Not coincidently Bob Iger, the main decision maker at Disney is Jewish. He also heads up a company with a reputation for producing family-friendly entertainment.
Are Politics Killing Twitter?
Anti-Semitism is not the only controversial communication on Twitter, there are also all the messages sent out by U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. Some of Trump’s Tweets have been outrageous and unpopular.
Back on September 30, Donald J. Trump; who Tweets as the realDonaldTrump, sent out an email directing his followers to look he described as a “sex tape” featuring former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, The Atlantic reported. Machado became embroiled in the American presidential race when Trump’s opponent; Hillary Clinton, accused him of making demeaning remarks about the beauty-contest winner at a debate.
Is this the kind of publicity that a company which markets to families and children wants anything to do with? The Machado affair and many other Trump tweets have made numerous headlines in the United States because of the election. Iger might have been afraid that Disney would have been linked with such controversy if it purchased Twitter.
Trump probably did not intend it but his use of Twitter may have severely damaged the social media company’s brand. To many people it looks as if Twitter is siding with Trump; or promoting his cause, even though that is not the case. After all many of the people who buy Disney’s products are not Trump supporters, and may oppose his agenda.
Was Disney Afraid of Bias Accusations
Another problem that Disney might have wanted to avoid was being seen as sabotaging Trump; and offending his followers by buying the service. Any effort to be seen as politically neutral; or “cleanup” Twitter, might have been interpreted as censorship by some Trump followers.
Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) faced intense criticism in May after the tech blog Gizmodo accused it of being biased against conservatives. Iger might have been afraid of similar charges of bias if Disney bought Twitter and tried to cleanse it of controversial speech.
The smartest course of action for a largely apolitical company like Disney then would be to stay as far away from Twitter as possible. Disney after all is a company built up reputation, in particular a reputation for family-friendly entertainment that is a refuge from the world’s controversies.
Social Media and Freedom
The issues raised by Disney and Saleforce’s bids for Twitter go far beyond investment. Concerns about free speech, freedom of the press and the free flow of information are raised.
Now that Social Media has become the preferred means of communications of hundreds of millions of people can we allow big corporations to control or police it? After all corporations have their own political agendas which might conflict with those of candidates or governments.
Should Disney; a corporation that profits from free trade, be making decisions about the speech of Donald Trump – a candidate who opposes free trade? Do corporations or their leaders have a right to censor speech that many might find offensive?
Perhaps Iger was right to kill the Twitter deal, because it would have put his company at the center of those questions. It might have also destroyed or severely Disney’s most valuable asset its reputation.
That might put Twitter in a terrible position; the social media service has become so controversial that nobody wants it. To make matters worse it exposes what might be Social Media’s greatest weakness and attribute: unfettered communication.
Even though unfettered communication makes services like Twitter valuable, it also makes them too controversial for most companies to touch. Social media entrepreneurs need to take a close look at what happened at Twitter and learn to avoid repeating its mistakes. If they cannot, the Twitter controversies will do irreparable harm to social media and possibly free speech.