Q&A: Media Studies Professor on the Twitter Story Rocking the NBA

Jack Hamilton, an assistant professor of American studies and media studies, says the anonymity of a Twitter account can cause problems.

The NBA Finals are just getting underway, but “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account” is what really has the basketball world talking.

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 rip his own players?

That is at the heart of shocking allegations reported by the sports website The Ringer earlier this week.

On Thursday, UVA Today caught up with University of Virginia assistant professor of American studies and media studies Jack Hamilton for his take on what has transpired.

Q. In the past, there have been high-profile people who have made blunders on social media, but have you ever seen anything quite like this?

A. Not really in terms of the confluence of things that this brings up. There have been dust-ups and embarrassing things that have happened on Twitter. Just last summer, it was revealed that NBA superstar Kevin Durant had his own set of “burner” Twitter accounts that he was using to respond to criticism.

But in terms of the constellation of issues that this Colangelo story brings up – the leaking of confidential team information and him carrying out personal beefs with other people in the NBA, this violation of team trust – I think this is a pretty unique situation. It’s such a weird story.

What this reminds me of most is about five or six years ago, the scandal that happened with Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o where it turned out that he had a fake girlfriend. It was a story that the more you tugged on it, the weirder it got.

Q. Colangelo is denying everything as a 76ers internal investigation has gotten underway. Is there a way for him to prove his innocence?

A. Prove his innocence would be tough. I think the only way that it could be done if it came out that it was entirely a set-up – that there was an aggrieved employee on the Sixers or someone in their IT department or someone who had orchestrated this incredibly elaborate frame job. If that were to come out, that would certainly prove his innocence.

The likelihood that it’s going to happen seems increasingly far-fetched, particularly since [Wednesday] night it seems to have come out that a few of the unaccounted-for accounts that were not linked to him now seem as though they might be linked to his wife. That only heightens the sense that there is something here, and it’s probably unlikely that there is a complete fabrication or frame-up. But who knows?

Q. For those who don’t use Twitter, what would be somebody’s motive for creating fake accounts? And is this one of the dangerous aspects of the medium – the fact that people can pretend to be other people? Should Twitter be requiring 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 pretty active Twitter user – would agree that Twitter needs much better security and verification practices. This is an ongoing issue with Twitter in terms of how easy it is to set up anonymous accounts.

Part of the way that Twitter functions really enables this in ways that other social media platforms don’t. It’s hard to imagine someone credibly creating a totally fake Facebook or Instagram account, whereas with Twitter – which is mostly text and stuff like that – the bar for entry is much lower. It is a problem, I think – the type of anonymity that Twitter grants and types of behavior and harassment that can occur. It gets really dark. Certainly around the last presidential election this was a big topic of conversation.

The question I have in all of this is less about the frame-up and who the source behind this story is. The source in The Ringer story is deeply anonymous. You get the sense that even the writer of the story doesn’t know much about who this person is. The story that they gave is that they work in artificial intelligence and this was how they figured out that these accounts were connected.

That explanation seems pretty fishy, at least to me. It seems like this is a person who had some sort of inside knowledge of this and someone who is either an employee of the Sixers or someone who is close to the Colangelos and knew these were accounts that were being authored by Bryan Colangelo, or his wife, or possibly his kid, or someone in that circle. It seems unlikely that Bryan Colangelo is being completely framed. It seems potentially likely that the source behind this is someone who had a very specific axe to grind.

Q. How rampant do you think this problem is? Do you think this might just be the tip of the iceberg, and now we’ll see lots of other executives – not just in sports – get revealed for having these burner accounts?

A. Yeah. I would put it this way: There’s no way Bryan Colangelo is the only person doing this. The issue is whether it’s going to come out. Will they upset the wrong person, who takes it upon himself to contact a major media outlet?

Q. A lot of evidence against Colangelo in The Ringer’s story was circumstantial. What are your thoughts on the decision to publish when there really wasn’t a smoking gun?

A. I know some people who work at The Ringer and I think they do great work. I’m hesitant to say anything too critical. I do feel like there are some places in that story that are gray areas. Frankly, I think it could have been nailed down a little more. A lot of it is circumstantial and it treads on the line between speculation and insinuation in ways that can be a little uncomfortable, especially in the fact that this could have real ramifications on someone’s life and family.

On the flip side, I feel like there aren’t that many other outlets who might have pursued this to this degree. I think that’s kind of a good thing.

For the most part, I think they did a very good job. While I do think there are some flaws with the story, I definitely wouldn’t say that it was something that shouldn’t have been published. It’s certainly newsworthy.

Q. How do you think this whole case plays out? Will anybody ever know for sure what happened?

A. I think it’s really unlikely that we’ll ever, totally for sure, know what happened. Barring the unlikely possibility that this Sixers internal investigation turns up somebody who has been framing Colangelo and they ’fess up to everything, I think this will be something that clings to Bryan Colangelo for the rest of his career. There are just so many conspiracy theories that you could spin out of this.

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