A Breath of Fresh, Condescending, Aggressive Air on Corporate Twitter

Käthe from T-Mobile Austria’s Twitter account may be terrible at her job, but at least she’s honest.

Refreshingly offended woman looking at smartphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

When it comes to corporate Twitter handles, we’ve come to expect a particular tone. Whether faced with an angry, unreasonable crank or a fair and reasoned complaint, affable social media reps—in many ways the “voice” of the company— tend to strike a conciliatory tone, performing public displays of appeasement, often as meaningless as they are cordial. Many companies now have dedicated customer service Twitter accounts, the names of which reflect this image, with “cares,” “help,” and “support” in the handles. The @customer is always right after all, and it’s the @customerservicerep who is expected to be the cool one.

Which is what makes T-Mobile Austria’s Käthe such a breath of fresh, condescending, aggressive air. It all started when someone tweeted at T-Mobile Austria (as first reported by Motherboard), asking for confirmation of the stunning fact that the company was storing customers’ passwords in plain rather than encrypted text. A cheerful social media rep by the name of ^Andrea (Hello, Andrea!) carelessly revealed that, yes, the company is storing part of users’ passwords in plaintext!

It’s a major admission on behalf of the Austrian telecommunications company, an admission that the company is being reckless with their users’ data—not just in regard to their T-Mobile accounts but to their entire online identities. Even having only four characters in plaintext is risky, as hackers are able to guess the rest with relative ease. And with many people using the same or similar passwords across multiple online accounts, a data breach could be catastrophic for Austrian T-Mobile customers. (The T-Mobile blog clarified that this policy does not apply to T-Mobile in the United States.) It’s a failure to meet a basic, widely accepted security standard, which Andrea tweeted as casually as answering a question about prepaid plans.

But when multiple Twitter users tried to explain—with a level of politeness usually associated with customer service agents—that this was a breach of standard privacy practice, it was defensive, dismissive ^Käthe who stepped in. (Can’t you just see her shoving simple, smiling ^Andrea aside?)

“Well, what if your infrastructure gets breached and everyone’s password is published in plaintext to the whole wide world?” asked one Twitter user.

Confidence is key, I guess. It’s far from the first instance of a corporate Twitter handle showing a little bit of sass toward consumers, and we often cheer this on—especially when they are attacking bigoted morons. But Twitter snark tends to be deployed only when the customer is also trying to be funny or is clearly in the wrong. It’s not usually directed at users asking reasonable questions about data security.

But Käthe wasn’t done. When the same user pointed out that no company’s security was infallible, and that employees might be able to access the valuable data directly, Käthe took on one of the most popular styles of Twitter arguing: condescension.

@Korni22 had apparently worked for Deutsche Telekom in Germany, but this still wasn’t enough for Käthe. After all, how could the customer be right when they have no firsthand experience of their “amazingly good” security?

On the one hand … go Käthe? The customer service rep refused to put on a conciliatory face to answer for the company’s worrisome policies, policies she is probably in no position to fix. T-Mobile Austria DGAF about your data, and neither does Käthe. She defied the idea that she should be appeasingly apologetic even while doing nothing. (It might be the fact that she is a she that makes it sweeter.) According to this Twitter Business blog post, the goal of a branded Twitter voice is not necessarily to be conciliatory—it’s to be distinctive. And, well, Käthe was certainly that.

On the other hand, oof. What makes Käthe’s dismissiveness even more cringeworthy is that she is so out of touch with prevailing consumer concerns. From the ongoing Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal to regular news items about data leaks hitting all sorts of companies—et tu, Panera?—the internet is undergoing a privacy reckoning, with users expressing heightened concern for their personal online security. Not only is Käthe’s tone far from the corporate Twitter norm, it’s also far from what we’ve come to expect from tech companies on questions of user data. As Nicholas Proferes points out in a Future Tense piece on Mark Zuckerberg’s long history of mea culpas, the Facebook CEO has a particular pattern he employs when responding to user outrage, one that involves “acknowled[ging] concerns” and “invok[ing] personal care” but ultimately doing little.

Hey, at least Käthe was honest. If you’ve got obvious consumer-privacy gaps, and you’re simply not going to fix them until after a major data breach occurs, you may as well skip the “We hear you.”