Fake news isn't just for politics on Facebook.
On the sports internet, where conversation around potential events is just as valuable -- and perhaps more compelling -- than conversation about actual events, all you need is a sense of what's possible to get a lot of people looking at your made-up garbage. And if one of those people makes the mistake of sharing said garbage on a prominent platform, you can blast fiction all the way into the mainstream news cycle.
We saw this happen when Brian Scalabrine -- an NBA guy with NBA connections who might actually hear things sometimes -- went on the radio and said he'd heard things about a potential trade involving Klay Thompson and the Celtics. Fans freaked out, publications like this one acknowledged the rumor, the Warriors themselves were forced to acknowledge it, and then Scalabrine revealed where he'd heard it from:
Morning Ledger 3 days ago justin bautista. I talk all rumors not just team I know and cover— Brian Scalabrine (@Scalabrine) November 14, 2016
Here's that Morning Ledger post, autoplay video ad included for full effect:
Here, with a hat-tip to my handsome son Rodger Sherman, is another headline from the same site:
(It didn't, btw.)
This is a fake rumor. By "fake," I don't mean that it didn't or won't become reality. I mean that that there was no official consideration of it becoming reality reported anywhere.
It's important to draw that distinction, because NBA rumors are a real thing.
People with connections often catch wind of trade talks, free agency plans, or other front office machinations. They then check that intelligence against other sources, then report it.
The rumor may never bear fruit in real life, but it can still be valid. An agent could truthfully tell a reporter "this team has called about my client," and the reporter could confirm that and report "Team Has Interest In Player," and then that team could never actually sign that player. It was still a legit rumor, backed by reporting on real behind-the-scenes dialogue.
There is also speculation! Speculation is fun. Playing with ESPN's NBA Trade Machine and saying "hey look, the Knicks could legally trade Derrick Rose straight up for Klay Thompson" is a lovely use of time and I support your decision to do that. You could even write about it on your blog. This is all fine.
What gets thorny is when speculation is mistaken for valid rumor, sometimes willfully. Here's another non-Scalabrine example, working backward:
1. In September, the Knicks and Thunder were not talking about a trade involving Russell Westbrook and Kristaps Porzingis. I promise you this was not the case. And yet, KOCO, an Oklahoma City news station with a verified Twitter account, posted that exact rumor on their website. It's still there, under the headline "Trade rumor: Russell Westbrook to the Knicks?" Here's how the rumor was addressed in their article:
"Unlikely, but the rumor is out there." Hmm. A link! Let's follow it.
2. Now we're on a website called SportsRageous. Hmm. What do they have to say?
"Absurd," and yet an article and another link! Let's follow it.
3. Here we are at Inquistr, which looks pretty legit! Here's their section on this rumor:
Holy shit! The Thunder and Knicks are actively "discussing" this blockbuster trade! Not so absurd anymore! And there's another link, presumably to reporting! Maybe this time it will actually go to the famous website "NBA Trade Rumors."
4. (Hold on, this is taking a while to load because I have so many tabs with so many autoplaying videos open.)
Hell yeah!!!!! Send in your rumors, everybody! They could end up in the news!
So how does THAT make its way up to a real, verified news source acknowledging it?
As far as I can tell, there exist several overlapping webs of rumor farms that all give each other a leg up on Google search. That website SportsRageous is part of a network called Tune Media, which appears to own a bunch of other trash news sites with which you, the internet-surfing NBA fan, may be familiar: Morning Ledger (hi Scal!), Chatt Sports, Morning News USA, Australian Network News, and more. All these sites link to each other, and they get frequent love from places with at least superficial legitimacy like Inquisitr and the Chinese site Yibada. Enough key words, and enough validation via links, and you can soar to the top of everyone's Google searches and alerts.
Say I'm a Phoenix Suns fan on Nov. 15, 2016 who wants to know if the team is thinking of trading Brandon Knight. I google "Brandon Knight trade rumor":
Whoa! Brandon Knight rumors in the news! The Suns are *going to* trade him, according to this headline! Let's click that "Headlines & Global News" link for the scoop:
Oh, a plainly hypothetical blog post about a plausible event. No reporting, no valid rumors, just harmless speculation regurgitated and re-regurgitated by other sites until it ends up on Google News with a headline that suggests it's actually transpiring.
That is, more often than not, what this comes down to. Fans speculate, then that speculation gets laundered several times over, swaddled in search-engine-optimized keywords, and boom, you're atop the Google search. If you're lucky, a desperate or unscrupulous mainstream outlet will cite your disingenuously magnified fan fiction and send extra links your way on top of the Google traffic. Eventually the rumor takes on a life of its own, large and multiple enough that no one cares where it came from anymore.
So what does this mean for you, NBA fan on the web?
Well, first of all, don't stop speculating. It really is fun, and it's fun to read when other people do it, too.
That said, I'd advise taking a moment to distinguish between imagining and reporting, and to follow rumors back to their original source. If a rumor sounds too rich to be true, it probably is. If you've never heard of that original source -- even if the name sounds official! -- give it a double check.
Have fun out there.