COMM11 – Blog Post #3 / The Outrage Formula: 140 Characters

This afternoon, pro tennis icon and international athlete superstar Maria Sharapova held a press conference in Los Angeles. The topic? That she had recently failed a doping test in January and is indefinitely suspended from competition.

Now, as a tennis fan, this news is quite shocking and, if you’re a fan of the picturesque Russian, quite disappointing. Plastered all over Google news searches, Twitter, and in Facebook’s trending topics, you’ll find a variety of baiting and incriminating headlines such as “Sharapova fails drug test at Australian Open,” “Tennis community stunned by Sharapova’s failed drug test,” or “Maria Sharapova: Professional Tennis Player Announces She Failed a Drug Test at Australian Open.” None of these headlines are false… but are they telling the whole truth?

The truth is that it simply doesn’t matter to a large majority of social media users. The headlines that the common internet user is generally unable to avoid in this day and are are simply micro-stories; clickbait that supposedly tells a whole news story within less than 140 characters, catered to the short attention spans of media-saturated citizens of the social media world.

140 characters of information is potentially all someone might get with regards to a certain story. And if that story is as polarizing as a highly regarded international athlete caught doping? People and their free opinions take to the internet by storm. It’s all a part of the modern culture of outrage: if there’s a popular topic and a powerful opinion to be made of it – someone will make it.

In the case of Maria Sharapova, there are quite a few mitigating details that underlie the headlines – headlines that, if merely read and not researched, suggest that the 5-time Grand Slam champion was using steroids to make herself into the fearless winner she has been known to be. But before we look at facts, how about we sample a bit of the internet’s outrage first?

While I cannot guarantee that Twitter users VillageShrink and LebstaBru haven’t educated themselves fully on Sharapova’s ordeal, they expertly underline the thesis of this blog post. People read a headline, quickly form an opinion, and at the push of a button and 30 seconds of typing 140 characters, they’re able to contribute to the outrageous #narrative of the day. Just think – all of their followers (perhaps not even sports fans) will now get second, third, or even fourth hand “information” and believe it to be soundly true. Their response? Perhaps they might tweet their own opinion.

It’s the double-edged sword of social media. As quickly as a cute puppy video or the goodwill of a major corporation might go viral and evoke the positive reaction of the internet community, one celebrity misstep or problematic advertisement can sentence those missteppers (and their brand) to their social media doom.

Sharapova admitted in her press conference that she did indeed take the drug meldonium. And that last sentence probably constitutes the foundation of more online outrage than it should. Especially because a) the drug only became banned at the start of 2016, b) she and hundreds of other athletes had been using it for years, c) meldonium isn’t considered a PED (performance-enhancing drug) by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), d) she was unaware that the drug had been added to WADA’s Prohibited List, and e) maintains that she had only used the drug as treatment for angina-symptoms and low-magnesium.

Feels a lot harder to brazenly label someone a cheat with all the information, right?

But like I said, it doesn’t matter. It’s fun to be outraged; to say something hyperbolic that some corner of the internet might agree with and therefore share or retweet. And the technology of social media in 2016 just makes it so easy, too. While it’s true that opinions cannot be false, they can be seriously uneducated – before posting on the internet, one should most certainly think before they tweet.

One thought on “COMM11 – Blog Post #3 / The Outrage Formula: 140 Characters

  1. Hi Jeff.

    Thanks for this. As a tennis fan myself I followed the Sharapova story with interest. I have to agree with you that in this era of ten second sound bites and 140 character posts, people are often too quick to judge and propagate misinformation on social media without having a proper context or all the facts. I can hear the inner voice of the typical social media narcissist saying: “Truth be damned! I want attention! And I need it now! Never mind the facts! I will post my feigned outrage to feed my narcissism and desperate need for attention!” (but I digress)…

    That said, in this particular case I don’t have much sympathy for Sharapova because even if she didn’t know about the new rules regarding meldonium (and I believe she did), ignorance of the rules is no excuse. I find it impossible to believe that the “little detail” surrounding a newly banned substance would not have been brought to Sharapova’s management team’s attention – if not her own – and that they would have wilfully withheld this information from her. Anyways, maybe we will find out the truth one day if ever an investigation is able to get to the bottom of this.

    In the meantime, the moral of the story is if you want to be taken seriously on social media, don’t be ignorant and make comments without having all the facts to back it up.

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