Q&A: Media studies professor on the history of Twitter rocking the NBA
The NBA Finals are just getting started, but “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account” is what the basketball world is really talking about.
Did the Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations really use five fake Twitter accounts — known as “burners” — to, among other things, leak confidential information and scam his own players?
It is at the heart of shocking allegations reported by sports site The Ringer earlier this week.
On Thursday, UVA Today caught up with Jack Hamilton, assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia, for his take on what happened.
Q. In the past, there have been high-profile people who goofed off on social media, but have you ever seen anything like this?
A. Not really in terms of the confluence of things it raises. There have been setbacks and embarrassing things that have happened on Twitter. Last summer, it was revealed that NBA superstar Kevin Durant had his own set of “burner” Twitter accounts that he used to respond to criticism.
But when it comes to the constellation of issues that this Colangelo story raises – the leaking of confidential team information and the fact that he has personal relationships with other people in the NBA, this breach of trust of the team – I think it’s a pretty unique situation. It’s such a weird story.
What this reminds me of the most is about five or six years ago the scandal that happened with Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o where it turned out he had a fake girlfriend. It was a story that the more you pulled on it, the weirder it got.
Q. Colangelo denies everything as an internal 76ers investigation is underway. Is there a way for him to prove his innocence?
A. To prove his innocence would be difficult. I think the only way to do it if it turns out that it was entirely a setup – that there was an aggrieved employee on the Sixers or someone from their IT department or someone who orchestrated this Incredibly elaborate frame work. If this were to come out, it would certainly prove his innocence.
The likelihood of that happening seems increasingly outlandish, especially since [Wednesday] overnight, it seems to have come out that a few of the unaccounted accounts that weren’t linked to him now appear to be linked to his wife. It only reinforces the feeling that there’s something here, and it’s probably unlikely that there’s a full build or edit. But who knows?
Q. For those who don’t use Twitter, what would be someone’s motive for creating fake accounts? And is that one of the dangerous aspects of the medium – the fact that people can pretend to be other people? Should Twitter require people to prove they are real people or have more security protocols in place?
A. I think most people who use Twitter – and I’m a fairly active Twitter user – would agree that Twitter needs much better security and verification practices. This is an ongoing issue with Twitter in terms of the ease of creating anonymous accounts.
Part of how Twitter works really allows that in a way that other social media platforms don’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone credibly creating a totally fake Facebook or Instagram account, whereas with Twitter – which is mostly text and stuff like that – the entry bar is much lower. It’s a problem, I think – the kind of anonymity that Twitter grants and the kinds of behavior and harassment that can occur. It’s really dark. Around the last presidential election, this was certainly a big topic of conversation.
The question I have in all of this is less about the editing and who is the source behind this story. The source of The Ringer’s story is deeply anonymous. You feel like even the author of the story doesn’t know much about who this person is. The story they told is that they work in artificial intelligence and that’s how they figured out that these accounts were connected.
This explanation seems pretty fishy, at least to me. It appears to be someone who had some kind of inside knowledge of this and someone who is either a Sixers employee or someone who is close to the Colangelos and knew these were accounts written by Bryan Colangelo or his wife, or maybe his child, or someone in that circle. It seems unlikely that Bryan Colangelo is completely framed. It seems potentially likely that the source behind this was someone who had a very specific ax to grind.
Q. How endemic do you think this problem is? Do you think that might just be the tip of the iceberg, and now we’ll see a lot of other executives – not just in sports – get exposed for having these burner accounts?
A. Yes. I’d put it this way: there’s no way Bryan Colangelo is the only person doing this. The question is whether it will come out. Will they bother the wrong person, who takes it upon themselves to contact a major media outlet?
Q. Much of the evidence against Colangelo in The Ringer’s story was circumstantial. What do you think of the decision to publish when there was really no irrefutable proof?
A. I know people who work at The Ringer and I think they do a great job. I hesitate to say anything too critical. I feel like there are places in this story that are gray areas. Frankly, I think he could have been nailed a little more. Much of it is circumstantial and sits between speculation and innuendo in a way that can be a little uncomfortable, especially in the fact that it could have real ramifications for someone’s life and family.
On the other hand, I feel like there aren’t many other outlets that could have pursued this to this degree. I think that’s a good thing.
For the most part, I think they did a pretty good job. While I think there are a few flaws in the story, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s something that shouldn’t have been released. It is certainly newsworthy.
Q. How do you think this whole thing is going? Will anyone ever know for sure what happened?
A. I think it’s really unlikely that we will ever know for sure what happened. Unless this internal Sixers investigation is unlikely to uncover someone who framed Colangelo and confess to everything, I think it will be something that will cling to Bryan Colangelo for the rest of his career. There are so many conspiracy theories you could come up with.