Sport, Twitter Hashtags, and the Public Sphere: Curt Schilling Case Study
By Dr. Brendan O’Hallarn (Old Dominion University)
This stark headline greeted readers of current affairs and politics website The Week early in 2017, after a particularly ugly Presidential election campaign. The piece joined others with similarly bleak prognoses in The Atlantic and Medium as the popular social media site faced a rash of criticism over the prevalence of bad behaviors by its users.
For me, unabashed Twitter enthusiast, the critique represented a challenge. Can the enlightened, pro-democratic discourse Twitter promised during its hopeful early days
as a vital organizing tool used by Arab Spring protesters still be realized? Can it still offer the potential to create dialogue akin to Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere?
The passion and consumption pattern of sport fans, along with specific aspects of Twitter architecture—notably the nimble hashtag—could spur the type of online discourse that Habermas termed deliberative democracy. Of course, barriers exist to that construct, notably the limitation on the length of tweets and the Online Disinhibition Effect, the tendency for online interactions to turn angry and negative.
On April 20, 2016, a former World Series-winning pitcher decided to make his political views very public.
Schilling was fired after sharing a meme on his Facebook wall about HB2, the North Carolina law which prohibits transgender people from choosing which bathrooms to use. It featured a picture of a large man in ill-fitting women’s clothing and the caption: “Let him in! To the restroom with your daughter or else you are a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving, racist bigot who needs to die!!!” Schilling was swiftly fired by ESPN.
Clearly, two “teams” of Twitter users materialized—with pro-Schilling and pro-firing tweets appearing in abundance. Analyzing the conversation patterns demonstrated there was very little interaction between the “poles”—the two sides were almost exclusively talking past each other.
However, an online questionnaire given to users of #CurtSchilling in the time interval of the study revealed three interesting things:
- The users themselves felt a tremendous kinship with other users of the hashtag, feeling like they were part of a collective conversation;
- Almost universally, they had no interest in communicating with the other “side” in the debate, feeling like everyone’s mind was already made up; however,
- Despite the lack of interactions, hashtag users knew all of the arguments being put forward by the other side. Even though they weren’t discussing the issue actively with them, they were consuming the alternative viewpoints.
Why This Matters:
The general fulfillment from users of the hashtag and the awareness of differing viewpoints (even if not commented upon) suggest some behavior approaching the Habermasian public sphere is present in the interactions.
For #Sportsbiz Professionals:
If they are running an active Twitter feed for their organization, the feeling that “engagement” with followers is the only way to feel like your feed is making an impact. Sometimes it’s worth simply knowing that even if they don’t voice their opinions, people are listening.
For those interested in reading in more detail, find the full research article here.