The week of August 30, 2015

Why #FSUTwitter is football’s most-feared digital mob

By Josh Katzowitz

When Jameis Winston stood on a table on the Florida State campus in September 2014 and began shouting obscenities, people understandably took notice. After all, here was the star quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner, and supposed campus leader inexplicably screaming out—repeatedly—a misogynistic Internet meme. At least eight people recognized him and tweeted about what they’d seen. Then they probably went on about their day, likely not expecting that anyone would particularly care, or that the media would pick up the story, or that Winston would be suspended for the first half of the next game.

And they probably didn’t expect that they would become targets of the notorious Seminoles fanbase, some of whom, rather than blame Winston, complained at the students who’d dared to tweet. Most of those tweets are gone now, deleted by their authors; in some cases the accounts are closed. It might seem like an isolated incident, an unfortunate example of the ease with which people can harass others on social media. But it fit a different pattern, one critics say is unique to Florida State fans.

It’s the loose, often vicious online mob known as #FSUTwitter.

“I haven’t seen it quite at this level before. This is the most intense use of social media by a fanbase that I’ve seen,” Daniel Wann, a professor at Murray State University who studies the psychology of sport fandom, told the Kernel. “It’s pretty clear that #FSUTwitter is a big deal. Fans use social media, and I think they’re just now figuring out how to use social media as an entity, as a fanbase.”

#FSUTwitter is used mostly for good, with a sense of pride that embeds users in a passionate culture of fandom. The Seminoles fans that aren’t quite as proper and polite probably are no different than that small subset of boorish supporters at any college program who muck it up for everybody else. Florida State has a few terrible fans. So does Ohio State, the University of Georgia, and practically every other institution and sports franchise you can think of. That’s why #FSUTwitter still matters: It shows how quickly and ugly things can turn for a fanbase, mobilized by Twitter and provided with a veil of anonymity.

In fact, USA Today sports writer Dan Wolken remembers #FSUTwitter as once being a typical hashtag used by football junkies with a lot of school school pride. But when the media began to investigate a rape allegation against Jameis Winston—11 months after the Tallahassee Police Department had closed its own investigation without ever talking to the quarterback—the conversation took a darker turn. Suddenly it was about more than football. And as Wolken tells it, some of the worst aspects of #FSUTwitter began to emerge.

“When you want to believe that you’re being attacked, you can take anything written about Florida State and say it’s evidence that you’re being attacked.”

“The way it all unfolded fed into a lot of the defensiveness, the clannishness, and the anti-media sentiment,” Wolken told the Kernel. “They were able to craft this narrative that the people who were writing this stuff were people who had it out for Florida State. Which is, of course, ridiculous. But when you want to believe that you’re being attacked, you can take anything written about Florida State and say it’s evidence that you’re being attacked. That’s not the way that most people working in the media would see it.”

A pattern evolved of a fanbase lashing out at reporters who’d dared to ask questions or to voice what fans took as criticism. Sometimes that was limited to Twitter vitriol and pettiness—like when the New York Times published its investigation of the Tallahassee and the FSU police departments, which showed a marked predilection for turning a blind eye toward football players accused of breaking the law. Twitter users, presumably FSU fans, flagged the story as a phishing attempt enough that Twitter temporarily made the article unavailable.

Other times the harassment was more severe. Matt Baker was a Tampa Bay Times beat writer whose questions to the Tallahassee Police Department helped reopen the Winston case in November 2013. “For my role in reopening a dormant investigation, Florida State fans wanted me to die of brain-eating cancer and [get] in a car crash on my way home,” he wrote in February 2015. “They told me to jump off a bridge and get hit by a truck. They suggested I get intimate with a monkey infected with AIDS.”

That was only the beginning. Wrote Baker:

Fans bombarded my phone with more than 100 calls over a couple of weeks. … My phone number showed up in a gay personal ad on Craigslist next to a picture of a chiseled man wearing only boxer shorts and a Santa hat. One late-night response included a photo of a stranger’s penis. …

I was covering a high school football game one night when a Twitter post popped up on my phone:

You’re a marked man … Say goodbye.

Baker and his wife took the threats seriously. They were made anonymously, by unknown people with unreadable motives.

At its worst, #FSUTwitter embodies that all-too-familiar entity: the angry digital mob, riled up and looking for a target.

Baker’s harassment may have been the most serious, but he’s not the only reporter to feel intimidated. The Kernel contacted three national reporters and another who covers a college team in Florida to discuss #FSUTwitter. All either said no or stopped responding to messages. When contacted by the Kernel for this story, ESPN’s Michelle Beadle, who’s hit back hard against FSU fans who attacked her or other reporters, declined to comment, saying she was trying to avoid #FSUTwitter for the time being. Another national reporter asked for anonymity before saying talking about it would be a nuisance and just bring on more hate. “We deal with a lot of criticism for anything we say or do. Why invite that?”

At its worst, #FSUTwitter embodies that all-too-familiar entity: the angry digital mob, riled up and looking for a target. “It’s called ‘deindividuation,’ and it’s the same thing as a mob mentality,” said Wann, the scholar of sports fandom. Anonymity grants a sense of power, and of lessened accountability. “For some individuals, certainly not all, it can give them a sense of freedom and security and maybe even an entitlement to say things they otherwise might not say. You get caught up in the moment. You just have the sense that nobody is going to know.”

One #FSUTwitter participant goes by the handle The Spear. His real name is Micah; he’s a 37-year-old optometrist who lives in Florida and who’s been an FSU fan since he was 4. (He asked that his last name not be used for this story.) Despite being active on the hashtag, he doesn’t see it as a way to abuse or intimidate.

“Every single fanbase has bad fans, bad apples,” he said. “There are some hardcore FSU fans that I’ve unfollowed. They’ve gone overboard. I’ve chosen not to be an intimidating person. But have I sent out a few tweets without knowing the context and the facts? Yes. But there are two parts to #FSUTwitter. Part of it is ‘Noles pride. Part of it is defending your school.”

He feels he had to defend FSU, and Winston in particular, from what he sees as a media vendetta.  “There’s no doubt a lot of what the media were saying about Winston, he was guilty before being proven innocent,” he said. “It got to that point that because he was so good, he was clickbait. They were going to use his name for whatever kind of story.”

“You get caught up in the moment. You just have the sense that nobody is going to know.”

One reporter particularly incensed him. Following a student code of conduct hearing, as Winston silently walked to a waiting car, she peppered him with questions, asking, “Why didn’t you come in and cooperate with police and answer their questions? How do you explain the bruises if it was consensual sex, Jameis?” (She also wrongly stated that Jameis faced two rape accusations; there was only one, though the New York Times reported “a second woman had sought counseling after a sexual encounter with Mr. Winston,” without saying she’d been raped.)

In a tweet, Micah called her “badgering,” and allowed another user to complete his sentence by calling the reporter a “BITCH,” following up with, “I hope we find this lady I’m going to ask her some stupid questions in public!” The reporter didn’t appear in the video provided by USA Today; only her voice could be heard. One FSU news source, @TomahawkNation, wrote the reporter’s name was Amy Finkel. Another posted a picture she suspected of being the reporter, while others scoured for her social media accounts.

“That’s a good example of that mob mentality,” Micah said months later. “I didn’t tweet any kind of threat. But I tweeted at her handle to tell her how completely immature it is to approach a young man who’s been proven innocent and humiliate him. I mean, who are you?”

“There’s no doubt a lot of what the media were saying about Winston, he was guilty before being proven innocent. It got to that point that because he was so good, he was clickbait.”

Who was she? Well, she certainly wasn’t the woman #FSUTwitter believed her to be. Amy Finkel was a documentary filmmaker living in New York City. She wasn’t a reporter; she hadn’t asked any questions of Jameis Winston. In fact, she’d never heard of him.

“She tweeted me back and said she had no idea what I was talking about. She wasn’t even a sports fan,” Micah recalled. In fact, to a different Micah who’d tweeted, “shame on you girl #FSUTwitter,” the clearly enraged Finkel responded, “Shame on you for not doing your fucking research. Stop harassing me. NOT THAT WOMAN. Read all of the other tweets from your people.”

According to USA Today’s Wolken, this may be the new status quo. “The way I look at it is that this is the world we operate in now,” he said. “Look, one thing that needs to be kept in context is that the percentage of people who actually use Twitter regularly or that pay attention to this world, it’s a pretty small number of people relative to the number of fans of any given team. Sometimes we make a bigger deal about what’s on Twitter than it deserves.”

Maybe he’s right. And maybe, just maybe, we sometimes make a bigger deal about football than it deserves.

Illustration by J. Longo