The NBA’s China crisis is another reminder of the dangers of Twitter

The NBA's China crisis is another reminder of the dangers of Twitter

At the very top of Twitter‘s corporate values website, there’s a statement: “We believe in free expression and think every voice has the power to impact the world.”

What’s left unsaid in the company’s value statement is: “What if you don’t want to impact the world?”

The National Basketball Association and one of its franchises, the Houston Rockets, are dealing with the repercussions of a single tweet from Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. The original tweet, an image that read “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong,” has caused Chinese businesses to suspend ties with the Rockets, including internet giant Tencent and Chinese state television, which have said they won’t be showing Rockets games.

Morey has already addressed his actions on Twitter, saying he didn’t intend his tweet “to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.” He noted that what’s happening between China and Hong Kong is “complicated,” adding, “I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”

In other words, Morey didn’t want to start an international incident, especially one that might jeopardize the positive relationship between China and the Rockets (who drafted Chinese legend Yao Ming in 2002 and have rostered Jeremy Lin, the most popular player in China, according to a study by the Mailman Group).

This is one of Twitter’s great existential crises. The platform wants to promote free expression, but free expression often comes with major drawbacks. Whether or not you agree with the NBA and the Rockets’ response to Morey’s tweet, it’s clear Morey doesn’t want to be in this position, and he’s here because of Twitter.

It’s easy to blame the person, and not the medium, for certain Twitter scandals, such as Elon Musk’s ill-advised last year for Tesla or Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets.

But free expression for those in leadership positions — particularly in corporate America — can be so problematic that Twitter is viewed by human resources departments and public relations specialists as a vice. Tweeting can be fun, and maybe you’ll get a short-term high, but the downside outweighs the upside if you have a lot to lose.

The U.S. president uses Twitter constantly to express his frequently controversial views, but unlike most people, he can’t easily be fired. That gives Donald Trump an enormous safety blanket with Twitter that’s not available to most people.

“None of us should be on Twitter,” The Ringer founder Bill Simmons said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, on his Oct. 7 “The Bill Simmons Podcast.” Simmons is friends with Morey and uses Twitter frequently, though he’s been in trouble with his former employer, ESPN, for tweets in the past, including suspension from the platform. “We should all get off.”

Of course, Simmons likely won’t get off, and neither will I, and if you use Twitter and are reading this, chances are neither will you. Twitter has obvious benefits. It’s good for news dissemination. It’s a good way to tell jokes. Even with the internet trolls, it can be a useful forum to share and critique ideas.

Morey’s tweet will probably blow over, Rick Welts, chief operating officer and president of the Golden State Warriors, said on CNBC on Monday.

“This will pass,” Welts said. Putting a muzzle on NBA players and leaders “isn’t going to happen,” because it doesn’t fit the values of the league, under the stewardship of commissioner Adam Silver.

But there’s little doubt everyone in the NBA and likely many other major corporations will look at this weekend’s events and once again remind their leaders to stay away from anything remotely controversial on Twitter. The downside probably outweighs the upside.

A corporate-approved, PR-massaged Twitter doesn’t do anyone any good. That’s not free expression. But it might be an increasing reality.

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