Twitter is Abusive and Declining, But Still Dominates The Sports Media

By Ty Duffy

I wrote about Twitter in 2014. The upshot of that piece: Twitter was a vital sports media tool, with serious issues for both the individual and the collective. Two years later, Twitter has changed. It may be on the precipice of even greater changes.

Media Twitter use has evolved and intensified. Twitter is not just indispensable for finding and sharing news. Twitter shapes news. Often, Twitter is the news. Blogs, of course, feast on Twitter happenings. But, it goes beyond that. The New York Times embeds tweets and covers Twitter reaction.

Twitter’s drawbacks have escalated in concert. “The medium has certainly moved more negative,” SI’s Richard Deitsch told The Big Lead via e-mail. “At its worst, Twitter can be a hub of misogyny, racism, sexism, xenophobia and bullying, and Twitter has done a poor job policing this on any real level.”

The medium itself appears to be in the midst of an existential crisis. Once the apparent future of all things Internet, Twitter has become staid. The broad user base, depending on the numbers you are parsing, is either stagnant or in steep decline.

Twitter’s reach is dwarfed by Facebook, has been surpassed by Instagram, and could be siphoned further by Snapchat and others. That’s an issue, when Twitter is selling potential, not a proven revenue stream.

Referral numbers have underwhelmed. Twitter stopped using share counts on buttons. Radical, fundamental changes to Twitter, such as an expanded character limit and a non-linear timeline, seem inevitable. How will this affect its relationship with the sports media?

I surveyed 52 sports media members about an array of salient topics. I consulted a few more. I tried to be inclusive of all perspectives without hitting explicit quotas. The results won’t meet scientific rigor, but they may be of some interest.

How Media Members Are Using Social Media


Twitter’s core user is a sports media member. 98 percent of survey respondents reported using Twitter most for work. 79 percent said they used Twitter the same or more often over the past year.

Those numbers should not surprise. Twitter remains the preeminent media tool. 67 percent of respondents said Twitter was their primary news source. Just six percent were using other news apps or RSS, barely more than the four percent still reliant on TV and radio.

More than half of respondents cited news gathering (or some variation) as the “best part of Twitter.” Twitter is immediate. Twitter exposes the media member to a much wider array of content.

“It remains for me the single best source to get news delivered to me,” Deitsch told TBL. “I have become a much more educated citizen because of Twitter.”

Twitter is where media members find content, because it’s where media members share content. 75 percent of respondents said Twitter was their most important outlet for sharing content. Facebook was the other 25 percent. Interestingly, among respondents who reported working for websites (who may have bettter knowledge of the referral data), the percentage was 50/50.

Multiple respondents also cited the community, particularly during live sporting events. “I can tell you who is sitting at the world’s greatest sports bar every game,” ESPN’s Darren Rovell told The Big Lead via e-mail.

Of course, that same Twitter community provided the overwhelming percentage of the “worst part of Twitter” complaints. That includes the professional community. 57 percent of media members confessed to having a colleague they can’t unfollow muted.

Are sports media members enjoying Twitter? That’s tougher to gauge. A majority said their Twitter experience has been the same of late. Though more said it had been more negative (32 percent) than more positive (18 percent). 60 percent of media members said they would have a Twitter account if not obligated for work, compared to 21 percent who would not.

Reported personal usage of social media was far different than professional usage. 52 percent said they used Facebook to keep in touch with friends. 18 percent used Instagram. Twitter came in third at 16 percent. Snapchat was close behind at 10 percent.

Though, as I can attest, media members may be spending less time than average folk using personal social media. Spending so much time using it for work deadens the desire to use it in real life.

“My personal-life social media presence is basically non-existent,” the Los Angeles Times’ Lindsey Thiry told The Big Lead via e-mail. “I spend so much time throughout the day on social accounts – Twitter, Facebook, Insta and Snapchat – that I am burned out and have zero desire to update my personal pages.”

Best and Worst Media Twitter Follows

Journalism is a jealous industry. Media members enjoy being ranked. I polled respondents about their “best” and “worst” sports media Twitter follows.

Choices for best Twitter follow were disparate. Richard Deitsch was the favorite, with a plurality of four votes. Others receiving multiple votes were Adam Schefter, Bomani Jones, and Dave Zirin. Two media members chose @ESPN. The survey was blind so we can’t name and shame them for shilling.

What makes a good sports media Twitter follow? Engaging with the medium in a positive way. These media members offer a broad array of thoughts and content on subjects they are passionate about.

Deitsch has made himself a nexus for all things journalism. “I love to read and I’m a journalism junkie,” Deitsch told TBL. “I’ve always tried to make sending out pieces that left an impression with me the dominant part of my Twitter feed.”

Jones combines his eclectic interests. “I’m a music critic turned economist turned sportswriter,” Jones told The Big Lead via e-mail. “I’m into a lot of things. In whatever work I’m doing, there’s usually some combination of all three of those things. There’s going to be a lot of volume because I have a lot to talk about, and I think a lot of it is worth hearing.”

That volume helps. Deitsch has sent more than 134,000 tweets. Jones has sent more than 317,000. Deploying some rough math, that’s more than 100 per day since he joined Twitter in 2009.

Another factor on “social” media is engaging with other users. Deitsch makes a point of responding to others. “I try to respond to a lot of people, because I take it as a sign of respect they are interested in my content,” Deitsch told TBL.

Jones’ profile has undergone a dramatic rise since joining Twitter. One could argue his strong following on Twitter played a role in his dramatic rise. He tries to maintain the approach he started with before becoming a ubiquitous presence on multiple ESPN platforms.

“When I started using Twitter, I was doing midday radio in Raleigh,” Jones told TBL. “I didn’t approach it as if I was a public figure because I really wasn’t one. So I did what everyone else did on Twitter, which was talk about what was going on, absorb information and make friends. I haven’t really changed that because I’ve seen no reason I should do so.”

Sports media members’ worst Twitter follow, with 10 of the 35 votes, won’t shock anyone. It was Darren Rovell. Rovell, who does have more than 1.3 million Twitter followers, views the backlash as a sign of his popularity.

“Nearly every person in society today who is popular is disliked,” Rovell told TBL. “Kobe and LeBron. Lot of people don’t like them. They frequently lead the league in jersey sales. The Yankees are the most popular team in baseball and the most reviled. Same with Duke basketball and Notre Dame football. Same with Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. Not by any means saying I’m them, but the basic principle is well established.”

Media Groupthink on Twitter

Multiple respondents cited groupthink as the “worst part of Twitter.” Broadly, an “in group” forms a consensus opinion. That “in group” then turns on members of the “out group,” stifling and dismissing dissent. This groupthink, in the sports media world, is believed to skew liberal.

“Liberal bloggers figured out how to use Twitter to support their particular brand of politically correct groupthink,” Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock told The Big Lead via e-mail. “Ideas and thought that remotely run counter to their dogma are labeled as racist, sexist, homophobic, or some other pejorative.”

Whitlock cited Bonnie Bernstein’s tweet about Ciara’s dress as an example. “Bonnie Bernstein tweets that Ciara’s national anthem dress is too provocative and she’s immediately shouted down as racist. No human being wants to be repeatedly told they’re bigoted, especially when they’re not. So, the lesson from the Bernstein-Ciara flap was don’t say anything via Twitter that could lead to that sort of backlash.”

Survey respondents believe groupthink is happening. 90 percent found groupthink to be at least present on Twitter. 69 percent described it as “a problem” (54 percent) or “a major problem” (15 percent).

Any sports media groupthink is likely to be liberal. There’s a simple reason: sports media members tend to be liberal. 62 percent of media members viewed Twitter consensus as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Only 10 percent viewed it as conservative. Sports media members think Twitter is liberal. Yet, only 33 percent of respondents thought Twitter was more liberal than themselves.

Perception of groupthink has an effect on how sports media members engage with Twitter. It’s no pure marketplace of ideas. 56 percent of media members admitted censoring an opinion to avoid Twitter reaction. 48 percent admitted censoring an opinion about sports.

There are qualifications to make. Groupthink is not unique to Twitter. “I’d say groupthink is always a problem, and Twitter has groups, so it’ll have groupthink,” Jones told TBL. “But, those inclined toward groupthink on Twitter probably do the same damn thing everywhere else.”

Everyone can be subject to groupthink. Not just liberals. “Are there people on Twitter who pile on given certain issues? Of course,” Deitsch told TBL. “Are there times when there is an echo chamber? Yes. But that’s on all sides of all aisles.”

The liberal groupthink narrative is simplistic, but there is some validity to it. It’s neither conscious nor malicious. Most would characterize themselves as thoughtful, intelligent, and open-minded. But, social media (and Twitter particularly) affect us in subconscious ways we seldom realize.

Everyone exhibits a confirmation bias. We look for and credit information that supports our preconceptions. Twitter takes the confirmation bias a step further.

We tend to follow those we agree with, filtering the information we receive. Those we follow have their own confirmation biases, assessing their own filtered information streams. Reactions can be instant and visceral. Others’ reactions prime our own reactions. Compound this for media members who have a greater resonance.

It’s not hard to see how a slight liberal bent could create an insulated bubble with a substantial impact on media coverage. Then of course, reactionaries have their own bubble and dismiss any criticism to their own ideas as a product of the media bubble. The Venn diagram overlap grows progressively smaller.

Things that seem settled and self-evident on Twitter often aren’t. That’s a much scarier prospect when the subject matters (see Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy).

The “cure” for groupthink is self-criticism. We can acknowledge and account for our own biases and can approach the positions of others with empathy. We should be doing that anyway. Whether that process can or will be deployed with the demand for instantaneous reaction is another matter.

Twitter’s Treatment of Women

Nearly a third (31 percent) of media members mentioned trolls and ad hominem attacks as the worst part of Twitter. Twitter has taken steps to address this issue. Though, many media members find them woefully inadequate.

This abuse is a major issue for sports media women, across various platforms. 69 percent of the 16 women who took the survey described social media as a negative environment for women. 31 percent of those described it as “very negative.” Only 6 percent described it as positive.

Fifteen women answered a question that went into specifics. 100 percent reported being harassed. 100 percent had had negative comments made about their appearance. 93 percent said they had been diminished based on their gender. 87 percent said they had been sexually harassed. 80 percent said they had had been threatened. 80 percent said anothe user had tried to “slide into their DMs.”

Half of media women said they had been made to feel unsafe by a social media interaction. 31 percent reported having contacted the authorities.

“I’ve been told I’m ugly and fat, had dick pics sent my way, been threatened so that I stayed home from work, and I’ve had colleagues disciplined for their behavior online,” The Cauldron’s Julie DiCaro told The Big Lead via e-mail. “It’s a very big part of the life of every woman I know in media. It completely changes you.”

Twitter, at least anecdotally, appears to be worse. The only barrier between sports media women and men who want to harass them is creating an anonymous egg account. Blocking can only be done ex post facto. There’s little recourse when women have complaints.

“There’s no phone number, no one to reach out to,” DiCaro told TBL. “You can’t even explain why a tweet may look neutral but is actually very abusive. There is literally no recourse. Blocking is easy to get around, and harassers just make new accounts to show up in your timeline, anyway. It’s like being held captive. There is no way for me to get these men out of my life, save quitting my job and leaving Twitter.”

Even media women who don’t think they have had it as bad as other colleagues may have a collection of screenshots with a wide range of derogatory and vile comments about them saved just in case.

Facebook adds a name, biographical information, and, perhaps, some more robust community guidelines. But, that does not offer much protection. “I had a guy tell me I needed to wash my cunt, because he could smell it all the way in St. Louis, and Facebook found that not to be an abuse of the community guidelines,” DiCaro told TBL.

Even if Facebook users aren’t leaving foul public comments, they can slide into your private messages. “I haven’t received anything offensive, that I recall, in my mentions,” Thiry told TBL. “I do receive some obscene, disgusting private messages on Facebook soliciting sex, dates, not innocent “can I take you out” notes but graphic, gross stuff.”

Is Twitter Racist?

Racial discrimination happens at a similar frequency to gender discrimination. Nine of the ten survey respondents who identified as non-white reported being disparaged by race. The percentage of respondents who reported being disparaged by race (33 percent) was higher than the percentage of minorities in the survey.

I asked Jemele Hill about a comment she made to SI two years ago. “Every day, I’m told to either go back to the kitchen or back to Africa. In fact, I checked my Twitter mentions 10 minutes after writing this, and a tweeter called me a monkey. It’s unacceptable, but I came to the conclusion a long time ago that this was part of the job.”

Hill believes the abuse has been the same or become worse during the interim, potentially due to the election year.

“It gravitates between the same and/or worse,” Hill told The Big Lead via e-mail. “I do wonder if it’s all linked to the fact that it’s an election year, or maybe I’m just more sensitive to people’s anger. I’m much less tolerant of online abuse than I used to be. It’s not that I take it personally. It’s just irritating as hell, and I constantly ask myself why am I putting up with this when I’m not paid to tweet, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.”

She finds Twitter to be the worst of the social media outlets for abuse. “Twitter has become the worst of them, followed by Facebook. For the most part, I’ve found that Instagram is mostly friendly,” Hill told TBL.

Resolving the racism that happens on Twitter requires answers to basic questions: what is happening and why? Those aren’t so clear cut.

Twitter, in one sense, is its users. America has always had an undercurrent of racism. That undercurrent has flared during this election cycle. It’s not so surprising that materializes on Twitter.

“Calling Twitter racist is a copout,” Jones told TBL. “Struggling economies inflame racism. Divisive political rhetoric from significant figures on both sides of the aisle inflames racism. Twitter? Twitter is pretty close to who we are, whether people want to admit it or not.”

Twitter, however, does affect social interactions that take place on it. Online personae interacting is different from people interacting. Twitter is louder. It’s blunter. The interactions aren’t always genuine.

“All of us are plagued by our biases, racial and otherwise,” Whitlock told TBL. “So everything is plagued by racial bias. Is it worse on Twitter? I think so. Twitter is the card table for the race game. Everybody plays. America is still very segregated. Twitter is an inauthentic world where people of different races ‘experience’ each other. We don’t show our true selves or our best selves. We only have 140 characters to promote some fabricated image.”

Whether it is minorities or women being abused, the only option is often to fight back.

“The ‘don’t feed the trolls’ crowd is the worst,” DiCaro told TBL. “Telling someone to sit back and take abuse day after day without standing up for oneself is not only ineffective…but also terrible advice on a mental health level. At some point, we should be able to fight for our sanity, too.“

The Future of Twitter and the Media

Twitter, for better or worse, is a dominant force in sports (and all) media coverage. It should remain that in the near-term.

Facebook has more users. But, it’s an amorphous cacophony of list posts, candy crush invites, and unwanted politics chatter from relatives and acquaintances. It’s hardly an efficient source of news.

Instagram is wonderful. One can build an individual brand on there. But, if you’re making money, you are probably hawking products. Asking people to click the link in your bio is hardly an efficient way to drive traffic. Snapchat? We still may have a bit more time before all news is dispensed via 10 second mobile video with cartoon dog graphics.

But, the Internet is relentless Darwinism. Paradigms can change with a great leap forward, or even a subtle algorithm tweak. Twitter could easily go the way of AIM or the direct music album sale.

Half of survey respondents were confident they would have an active Twitter presence in five years. 48 percent were unsure. One respondent, bless him or her, was an adamant “no.”

What must Twitter do to survive? First, figure out what it is. The stagnant user base is a narrative, of far more concern for Twitter’s stock valuation. But, a declining number of casual users equals fewer clicks.

Survey respondents may not like “the riff-raff people” or “anyone with fewer than 250 followers and a picture of a dog as their avatar.” But, getting those people to consume your content is a major appeal of Twitter.

Referrals have fallen. Recent Twitter innovations have fallen flat. Despite the commercial push, just 21 percent of media respondents found “Twitter Moments” useful. Future ones – increasing the character limit or dispensing with the linear timeline – could have dramatic impacts, positive or negative.

Whatever Twitter becomes, it will have to generate more revenue. A direct pay model would generate the most revenue, but it would also take a dramatic toll on the user count.

49 percent of survey respondents were unwilling to pay for Twitter if obligated. 27.5 percent were willing to pay $1-$5 per month. 23.5 percent were willing to pay $10 per month. Percentages among the personal users are probably lower.

Darren Rovell brought up the pay for additional premium services model. The question there is what Twitter could offer that would be worth paying for.

75 percent of media respondents said they would not pay for additional services. Only 6 percent said they would be willing to pay more than $5 per month for such services. Again, percentages among the general user base are probably lower.

Twitter must find a balance protecting its users. Prominent users, especially women and minorities, being subject to relentless, hurtful trolling and foul comments won’t keep them using the medium.

How to balance the limits of free speech is a philosophical issue, not a technical one. Companies like Twitter view having a full staff on hand to address users’ complaints as an inefficiency to root out, not a solution. The only thing Twitter seems able/willing to police with any gusto is arcane, third-party copyright claims.

Twitter remains indispensable for media use. There isn’t an outlet that lets you share content as quickly and directly to a tailored audience. There isn’t an outlet that lets you receive tailored information as quickly and directly. Wright Thompson got away. He may be the only person in the sports media whose job allows him to.

Twitter can (and probably will be) usurped for media usage in the intermediate to long term. The next thing could be great. It could also be even worse. “Healthy life balance” and “ensuring publishers get fair value from their content” are rarely high on the list of tech company concerns.