Sports journalism has hit a new low. While ESPN devotes hours of airtime daily to letting human bobbleheads like Skip Bayless scream at each other over where Tim Tebow will find a job, daily reporters are superglued to their Twitter feeds so they can be the first to share Skip's latest made-up rumor.
It's fascinating how information goes viral now. Someone sees a tweet and retweets it immediately, no questions asked. Along the way, it grows like a snowball rolling down a mountain until it's been spread so far and so wide that it must be true. After all, on Twitter there's no "Are you sure?" button or "Is this true?" button; there is only a "Show what you just saw to the bleachers full of people that follow you" button called "retweet."
That's why I decided to troll the hell out of everyone last week. The following is a blow-by-blow look at how, in less than 90 minutes, I convinced the Twitterverse that a made-up ESPN reporter with the same name as the Marlins' bench coach was reporting Tebow would soon be a Miami Dolphin — a hoax that didn't end until ESPN, Tebow, and the Dolphins themselves put a stop to it.
Step 1 — Pick a source, any source: Choose a name, literally any name, and add "ESPN" at the end. People see "ESPN" and assume it's true. You could see on ESPN's bottom line that you crapped your pants in the future at 7:57 p.m., and at 7:57 p.m. you would be asking, "Am I about to crap my pants?" I picked Marlins bench coach Rob Leary. "Rob Leary" just looks like the name of an ESPN guy, like "Bob Ley" or something. This was a bonus because no matter what the Marlins bench coach's name was, I was going with it.
Step 2 — Make the tweet speculative, never confirmed: You need to dangle the carrot, while also making the news something that can't readily be confirmed or denied. One of the evil little secrets about Twitter is that we all want to be the person who told the other person who told the other person about that thing, whether it be news as serious as someone famous dying or that Amanda Bynes posted her boobs on Instagram again. Everyone is a source on Twitter, which is as much its draw as its downfall. One day you have 300 followers; the next day you're on CNN because you live-tweeted Osama bin Laden's capture.
So, after straight-up warning everyone on Twitter that I was about to troll their balls off, I dove in with this simple, complete lie of a tweet:
Again, I just reported that the Miami Marlins bench coach, who amazingly, suddenly, works for ESPN, has sources telling him Tim Tebow is at the Dolphins facility in Davie. The whole premise is ridiculous. Forget that you just need to check my timeline to see this is a complete lie — I said so moments earlier! — because now people just assume someone works at ESPN named Rob Leary. This tweet was quickly retweeted by 50 people. The snowball was rolling.
Step 3 — Have accomplices. Twitter travels in herds: Ocean's Eleven wasn't called Ocean's One for good reason: Every terrific heist requires lots of help. And I had plenty. The best came from an account that truly shows how little people pay attention on Twitter and how altogether shady the whole web can be — an account called @MiamiDolphins. Seems legit, right? Wrong. It's a fake account that uses a capital "I" as the "l" in "Dolphins." Twitter loophole! This account tweeted this statement:
"Hmmmmmm," says the Twitter. I just saw over here this report; now I'm seeing this. It must be true! Without such a genius fake account (and no, it's not me running that one), the same effect can also come from everyone and their mother discussing something until they talk themselves into believing it. People get to Twitter at different times, so it's like walking into a movie at the halfway point. You believe what you are told because you don't have time to catch up and you just want to move forward so that you don't miss the next huge news, all so you can be the guy who told the guy about the guy! It's a vicious circle. I'm guilty of it every day. Everyone is.
Step 4 — Sit back and watch as Twitter repeatedly punches itself in the groin: Speculation is the key to the Twitter telephone. Here are some of the reactions I received:
Step 5 — The media takes the cheese: Everyone has a Twitter account, especially people you have never heard of. This applies to the media as well, and honestly it's not really their fault — Twitter is a dick. Thing is, once a media professional mentions something on Twitter, it goes in moments from the Bleacher Report to Fox Sports to the daily newspapers. If your buddy says Tim Tebow might come to the Dolphins, you throw him a "Pffft, dude, what do you know?!" But if Ben Volin from the Palm Beach Post mentions it, even if he's totally saying it's false, that tweet becomes news.
This works especially well in sports, where you never know what is true and not true because teams use the media all the time to plant stories. The Dolphins have worked out 45 left tackles this month, and part of the reason you know that info is because leverage is coming from somewhere. Whether the original source is an agent, the team, the player himself, or a source with a grudge, you have no idea what is true anymore. Yeah, this Tebow news is a stupid hoax, but nobody knows that, so the ball keeps rolling.
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Step 6 — ESPN, Miami Dolphins, and Tebow respond: Well, that escalated quickly.
It's come full circle at this point. My job here is done. Following these reports, the Dolphins finally flat-out said they have no interest in Tebow.
You might be saying to yourself that I'm a jerk, and that's fair if you take yourself, and Twitter for that matter, way too seriously. Look at this as a social experiment. In a matter of minutes, ESPN had to address a made-up tweet, and Tim Tebow himself is being asked if he's in Davie or not — all because of me. And who the hell am I? I'm nobody, which is exactly my point.
Media outlets these days — especially sports media, where rumor is the gristle that makes pounds and pounds of ESPN sausage every day — turn a tweet into an article. The same media guys who used to joke they would never get on Twitter are on there now because they didn't want to be left behind or be at a disadvantage.