I love Twitter a lot -- like 83,000-tweets-and-counting a lot. So I didn't troll everyone yesterday with fake news about Tim Tebow joining the Dolphins because I was mad. I did it because it would be funny, and also because it's fascinating how information goes viral -- particularly in the murky world of sports reporting. Someone sees a tweet and retweets it immediately, no questions asked. Along the way it grows like as snowball rolling down a hill, until it's been spread so far and so wide that IT MUST BE TRUE. There is no "Are you sure?" button and there is no "Is this true?" button; there is only a "show what you just saw to the bleachers full of people that follow you" button called "retweet."
The following is a blow-by-blow look at how in less than 90 minutes I convinced the Twitterverse that a made-up ESPN reporter with the same name as the Marlins bench coach was reporting Tebow would soon be a Miami Dolphin, a hoax that didn't end until ESPN, Tebow, and the Dolphins themselves put a stop to it.
Step 1 - Pick a source, any source
Pick a name, literally any name, and add "ESPN" at the end. People see ESPN and assume it's true. You could see on ESPN's bottom line that you crapped your pants in the future at 7:57 p.m., and at 7:57 p.m. you would be like, "Am I about to crap my pants?" I picked Marlins bench coach Rob Leary. Rob Leary just looks like the name of an ESPN guy, like Bob Ley or something. This was a bonus because no matter what the Marlins bench coach's name was, I was going with it.
Step 2 - Make the tweet speculative, never confirmed.
You need to dangle the carrot while at the same time making the news something that can't readily be confirmed or denied. One of the evil little secrets about Twitter is that we all want to be the person that told the other person that told the other person about that thing, whether it be news as serious as someone famous dying, or that Amanda Bynes posted her boobs on Instagram again. Everyone is a source on Twitter, which is as much its draw as its downfall. One day you have 300 followers, the next day you're on CNN because you live-tweeted Osama Bin Laden's capture.
So, after straight-up warning everyone on Twitter that I was about to troll their balls off, I dove in with this simple, complete lie of a tweet.
ESPN's Rob Leary is reporting Tim Tebow is at the Dolphins facility as we speak taking a physical..says team very interested, could get done
-- Rizzmiggizz (@RizzWrites) May 2, 2013
Again, I just reported that the Miami Marlins bench coach, who amazingly, suddenly works for ESPN, has sources telling him Tim Tebow is at the Dolphins facility in Davie. The whole premise is ridiculous. Forget that you just need check my timeline to see this is a complete lie -- I said so moments earlier! -- because now people just assume someone works at ESPN named Rob Leary. This tweet was quickly retweeted by 50 people, getting the snowball rolling.
Step 3 - Have accomplices. Twitter travels in herds.
Ocean's Eleven wasn't called Ocean's One for good reason: Every terrific heist requires lots of help. And I had plenty. Maybe the best of which came from an account that truly shows how little people pay attention on Twitter,and how altogether shady Twitter can be, an account called @MiamiDolphins. Seems legit right? Wrong, it's a fake account that uses a capital "I" as the "L" in Dolphins. Twitter loophole! This account tweeted this.
Big announcement upcoming for your Miami #Dolphins!
-- Miami DoIphins (@MiamiDoIphins) May 2, 2013
Hmmmmmm, says the Twitter. I just saw over here THIS report, now I'm seeing THIS. It must be true!! Without such a genius fake account (and no, it's not me running that one) the same effect comes just from everyone and their mother discussing something until they talk themselves into believing it. People get to Twitter at different times, so it's like walking into a movie at the halfway point. You believe what you are told because you don't have time to catch up and you just want to move forward so you don't miss the next huge news -- so you can be the guy that told the guy about the guy! It's a vicious cycle. I'm guilty of it every day. Everyone is.
Step 4 - Sit back and watch as Twitter repeatedly punches itself in the cock.
Speculation is the key to the Twitter telephone. Here are some of the reactions I got.
Gotta be kidding me...Tebow?
-- Kevin Mayer (@KevinCMayer) May 2, 2013
FUCK RT @rizzwrites: ESPN's Rob Leary is reporting Tebow is at the Dolphins facility as we speak taking a physical.
-- jmnpb (@jmnpb) May 2, 2013
-- Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) May 2, 2013
Can we trust Rob Leary on the Tebow news?
-- Cutter Spindell (@ChrisMaracas) May 2, 2013
As an aspiring journalist, I try and model my reporting after that of Rob Leary. One of the best.
-- Josh Appel (@JoshAppel) May 2, 2013
Step 5 - The Media takes the cheese.
Everyone has a Twitter, especially people you have never heard of. This applies to the media as well, and honestly it's not REALLY their fault, Twitter is a DICK. Once they mention something, it goes from Bleacher Report to Fox Sports to the daily newspapers. If your buddy says Tim Tebow might come to the Dolphins, you throw him a "Pffffffffffffft, dude what do you know?!" But if Ben Volin from the Palm Beach Post mentions it, even if he is totally saying it's false, it becomes news. This works especially well with sports, where you never know what is true and not true because teams use the media all the time to plant stories. The Dolphins have worked out 45 left tackles this week, and part of the reason you know that is leverage, coming from somewhere. Whether it be an agent, the team, the player himself, or a source with a grudge, you have no idea what is true anymore. Yeah, this is a stupid hoax, but nobody knows that, so the ball keeps rolling.
Don't take the bait. The "Tebow signs with Dolphins" story is a Twitter prank
-- Ben Volin (@BenVolinPBP) May 2, 2013
Tim Tebow is NOT working out for the Dolphins, not taking a physical for the Dolphins.
-- Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) May 2, 2013
Tim Tebow, I ask high ranking Dolphins source? "No ... totally untrue."
-- Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) May 2, 2013
Step 6 - ESPN, Miami Dolphins, and Tebow respond
Well, that escalated quickly.
-- David Lang (@DukieLang) May 2, 2013
Source in Tebow camp says he is not visiting Dolphins today, contrary to internet chatter.Fins have not pursued him to this point.
-- Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) May 2, 2013
And ESPN also says it is not reporting that Tebow is visiting, despite an Internet hoax suggesting otherwise.
-- Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) May 2, 2013
It's come full circle at this point. My job here is done. Following these reports, the Dolphins finally came flat-out and said they have no interest in Tebow. When I got in my car last night, 560 WQAM, the very station where all this started, is discussing if it's true or false. Later in the day, Jorge Sedano, who is very aware of my past Twitter pranks, laughs on air about how I trolled the shit out of Twitter -- he gets it.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
You might be saying to yourself that I'm a jerk and that's fair if you take yourself, and Twitter for that matter, too seriously. I just look at it as a social experiment. In a matter of minutes, ESPN is addressing a made up tweet and Tim Tebow is being asked if he's in Davie or not all because of me. And who the hell am I? I'm nobody, which is my exact point. Media these days -- especially sports media, where rumor is the gristle that makes pounds and pounds of ESPN sausage every day -- turn a tweet into an article. The same media guys that used to joke they would never get on Twitter are on there now because they didn't want to be left behind or be at a disadvantage. Hell, Phil Jackson just joined. So did Warren Buffett.
A single tweet can get you hired as fast as it can get you fired. It can cost you money or make you money. Kim Kardashian makes $250,000 for Tweeting about weight-loss pills while Micky Arison gets fined half a million bucks for tweeting something he shouldn't during the NBA lockout. Twitter is a beast, a tough mistress I tell ya.
Never underestimate the power of a single tweet. Just consider the source for a half-second before you hit "retweet."