At about the time I cracked open up my first bottle of Malbec on Saturday night, my Twitter feed erupted.
“Is it true?”
“What do you know?”
“Where do they go from here?”
Without knowing the source of the latest Internet frenzy, I dug deeper and found my answer within seconds. The stir was regarding a tweet—although there were others before and certainly many more after—but one in particular that went viral in an instance.
LSU head coach and unofficial college football mascot Les Miles had an affair and will be resigning, according to the Internet, which is never, ever wrong.
The tweet came directly from Sam McGaw, a broadcast journalism student at Western Kentucky. If you’re wondering where the Western Kentucky tie-ins come in—and by now you’re already thinking about one motorcycle-ridin’ Bobby Petrino—think again.
It turns out Sam claims he grabbed this from a message board (BamaOnline.com) and carried it over to Twitter.
“Les Miles” was soon trending nationwide on the world’s largest social network—which tells you the reach it received—and Sam watched his Twitter followers surge from under 250 to 30,000 plus, all in one evening.
All from one tweet and 136 characters. Just four characters to spare.
CBSsports.com’s Bruce Feldman inquired about the rumor and confirmed there was nothing to this later on Saturday evening. There are very few people you feel overwhelmingly confident trusting these days, but Bruce is one of them.
LSU fans exhaled, although the sigh of relief probably came after polishing off the entire liquor cabinet. Welcome to the Internet and social media in 2013.
Twitter’s influence on sports, and specifically college football, is something I’ve discussed at length this year. Recruiting is now deeply influenced by social media—for better or worse—and the growing popularity of the sport can be felt through 140 characters.
As an information outlet, however, it is flawed and potentially dangerous.
If you want the news delivered to you first, you’ll find it on Twitter. If you want to ensure the news you’re getting is accurate and well sourced, that’s a completely different story. As we’ve seen over the past few years, Twitter can and will be habitually wrong.
From deaths, to trades, to affairs, to realignment rumors—which hits closer to home for the college football junkies—the information passed along is often incorrect. And while we’re skeptical of news because we’ve been burned before, it doesn’t stop us from making the same mistake over and over.
When tweets regarding Les Miles began to circulate, it was greeted with doubt and extreme skepticism. Despite this, it still managed to build into something it shouldn’t have become. Sam McGaw wasn’t reporting when he relayed these rumors. He passed long what he read, and it snowballed.
While he used “allegedly” to give himself an out, he didn’t cite where he heard this in the original mention. Had he said he heard it on an Alabama message board from the get-go, much of this probably could have been avoided.
In general, if you have to write a “Not sure this is true, but…” disclaimer (or something similar), don’t hit send or publish. Even if you’re not a journalist obeying different rules, this is how we create a mess of things. It’s also incredibly unjust for the parties being mentioned.
But blasting Sam for this—and many have done just that since Saturday night—is foolish. By no means was he trying to come off as a “source,” despite the cryptic nature of his tweet. If you search “Les Miles” now on Twitter, you’ll see many, many others doing the same.
Should he have sent it? Clearly not. Is he the root of the problem in this? Absolutely not.
There’s a reason a reach of 300 followers was able to broadcast this rumor to the world. That reason is you, me and our general obsession with controversy. It allows us to prematurely decide the truth before we have the facts.
It could have stopped here, or at least got very little traction with its placement online, but it didn’t.
Social media feeds off this desire and need for news, good or bad. And instead of processing the information, looking at where it’s coming from or even Googling to see if anything else matches up with this, many would rather hit send.
The problem isn’t one person or one tweet. The problem is the millions who choose to believe it, or even those who don’t but still feel the urge to discuss it. Even those debunking the rumor play a role.
I’m guilty of this as well, although my tweets provided a pretty good sense of where I stood.
I blame the wine.
The last few offseasons of college football have been riddled with breaking news, much of which has been relayed through social media. Many of these reports are right, many are wrong. The message board mentality has seemingly made its way to other outlets. In this particular moment, it had a direct role.
Avoiding these types of situations doesn’t require much: Some common sense and patience will suffice. If only it was that easy. For as much good as Twitter brings, it's also capable of some pretty destructive things. The destruction, however, comes from us. We are the guilty parties.
Controversy generates interest along with page views and followers. Some want to feel like they're "breaking" news, others simply root for chaos. We can’t help getting consumed in it all.
I’d love to tell you that we will learn from Les Miles’ misfortune, but we all know this isn’t the case.
Until next time…