Sport, Twitter Hashtags, and the Public Sphere: A Qualitative Test of the Phenomenon Through a Curt Schilling Case Study

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Popular social media platforms have faced recent criticism because of the tendency for users to exhibit strongly negative behaviors, threatening the open, prodemocratic discourse that proponents believe was made possible when social media sites first gained widespread adoption a decade ago. A conceptual model suggests that the microblogging site Twitter, and especially sport-themed debate through hashtags, can still realize these ideals. Analyzing a dataset of tweets about the firing of former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling by ESPN on April 20, 2016, as well as a qualitative questionnaire given to the users of the hashtag, this study attempted to ascertain how closely the discourse comes to realizing the ideal of the Habermasian public sphere. The findings demonstrate that although users draw value from participation in the discussion, they are less inclined to desire interaction with other hashtag users, particularly those who disagree with them. This suggests that Twitter hashtags provide an open forum that approaches the participatory requirement of the public sphere, but the lack of back-and-forth engagement suggests the medium is not ideal for the generation of deliberative public opinion.

O’Hallarn is with the Department of Communication & Theatre Arts, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA. Shapiro is with the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. Hambrick is with the Department of Health & Sport Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. Wittkower is with the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA. Ridinger is with the Department of Human Movement Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA. Morehead is with the Department of Recreation and Sport Management, Coastal Carolina University, Conway, SC.

Address author correspondence to Brendan O’Hallarn at bohallar@odu.edu.
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