BOULDER, Colo. — Basketball season is here again, meaning one of the most time-honored traditions in sports fandom is also back: trash talk. Of course, insulting a particular team, its players, or its loyal fans is typically done with an “all in good fun” attitude. Sometimes, though, online interaction between fans can become hurtful. In an attempt to better understand the relationship between sports fandom and online discourse, researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder studied years’ worth of user comments and other data from r/nba, a forum on the popular social media website Reddit for National Basketball Association (NBA) discussions.
The study, led by professors Chenhao Tan and Jason Shuo Zhang, found that throwing fans of all 30 NBA teams into one forum to interact with each wasn’t the best way to encourage a positive online community. In fact, the more the fans on r/nba interacted with each other, the more negative their comments towards each other became.
“They are more likely to swear. They are more likely to use negative words and they are more likely to use what we call hate speech,” says Tan in a media release. “People have strong opinions and can even become violent when facing people affiliated with opposing groups.”
Tan and Zhang believe their experiment illustrates just how important sports are to many people, and how much passion they have for their favorite teams and players.
For reference on just how popular r/NBA is, as of early this month the forum included 2.8 million subscribers. Additionally, each NBA team has its own subreddit, intended for discussions solely centered on that particular team and its players. This vast user population made Reddit the perfect online platform for the study’s purpose.
So, Zhang and Tan analyzed 2.1 million comments from r/nba posted between the 2017-18 and the 2018-19 basketball seasons. Using software to analyze language patterns, they discovered that mixing fans of multiple NBA teams on the same online forum led to more negativity and even an increase in violent language.
Conversely, when fans of the same team interacted with each they tended to use more positive words like “help” or “thank.” Sometimes, users who had gotten into an argument with fans from another team actually carried that negativity over to their interactions with fellow fans of their favorite team. Rather comically, the study’s authors also noticed that more negative users in general seemed to talk about referees quite often.
The research team did, however, admit that they are unsure of what is exactly causing this behavior. At its essence, the question boils down to: Do forums like Reddit create more aggressive fans, or are the users who choose to engage in sports discussions online particularly hot-blooded?
Still, Tan and Zhang feel their research is very relevant given the current online climate of toxic debate, and believe it may even prove useful in understanding political discussions online.
“In order to bring people of different ideologies together, social media companies have proposed that maybe we can push some opposing viewpoints to peoples’ timelines,” Zhang says. “But we argue that you need to be very careful in taking such a strategy online.”
“I think that studies like ours can help in pointing the direction toward how we can create healthier platforms for people to have these kinds of conversations,” Tan adds. “I remain optimistic that it is possible.”
The study is published in the journal Computer Science. It will also be presented at the 22nd Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in Austin, Texas.