Published: Nov. 4, 2019 By
Basketball sitting on court

Basketball season kicked off last month and with it comes the return of the most enduring of fan traditions: trash talk.

Now, researchers from CU Boulder have taken a deeper look at the rivalries and insults to better understand how sports junkies interact with each other online. 

The researchers, led by CU Boulder’s Chenhao Tan and Jason Shuo Zhang, studied several years’ worth of data from r/nba, Reddit’s go-to platform for discussions of all things basketball. They discovered that tossing fans of opposing basketball teams together online may not be a good way to help them get along. In fact, the more those fans interacted, the group found, the more negative their comments 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,” said Tan, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science.

 the legacy of LeBron James.

Screenshot from Reddit's r/nba platform of fans getting into it over that perennially favorite basketball topic: the legacy of LeBron James. (Credit: Zhang et al. 2019)

The results may not be surprising to fans of famous NBA trash talkers like Kevin Garnett or Charles Barkley. But for Tan and Zhang—both big basketball fans themselves—the study illustrates just how important sports are to peoples’ lives.

“People have strong opinions and can even become violent when facing people affiliated with opposing groups,” Zhang said. 

4-letter words

He and Tan wanted to see how that might play out in a far-reaching social media platform like Reddit. As of early November, r/nba claimed 2.8 million subscribers and 30 subreddits dedicated to each of the NBA’s teams.

The researchers pulled 2.1 million posts from the site dating back to the 2017–18 and 2018–19 basketball seasons. They then used computer software to analyze the language patterns used in those discussions. 

The group found, for example, that mixing fans of different NBA teams together online—what researchers call “intergroup contact”—may lead to a backfire effect. 

Take hypothetical fans of Colorado’s own Denver Nuggets. (The study didn't actually single out fans of any particular team). Based on the group’s findings, when Nuggets fans interacted only with other fans of their favorite team, their posts might be disproportionately filled with words like “help” or “thank.”

But if Nuggets fans spent a lot of time chatting with fans of, say, the Portland Trail Blazers, their vocabulary was likely to deteriorate. In a finding that will be no shock to sports fans, those more negative Reddit users referenced one word heavily: “refs.”  

“Intergroup users tend to complain a lot more about refs than single-group users,” Tan said.

He and Zhang also found that those more negative Nuggets fans might even use similar language later when talking to other Nuggets fans. In other words, they brought their bad attitudes with them.

“When intergroup contact occurs, we’re seeing that some negativity can spread back to a user’s home setting and make the situation even worse,” Tan said.

Healthy conversations

He is quick to point out that the study can’t ferret out cause-and-effect. Do settings like r/nba make people more pugnacious, or are people who choose to interact with opposing fan groups in an online forum just more emotionally invested in the game?

Still, the researchers say that the findings are important to keep in mind as debates over toxic discourse on the internet continue. They may also provide new insights into another arena famous for social media skirmishes: politics.

“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 said. “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 said. “I remain optimistic that it is possible.”

The researchers will report their findings Nov. 12 at the 22nd Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in Austin, Texas.