Think before you tweet

By Jack Brady

More often than not nowadays when you look at the back of a newspaper there is bound to be some sort of sporting controversy splashed across the page.

Sex, drugs, assaults, brawls, racism and common indecency – the National Rugby League specifically has faced it all in recent times.

A new phenomenon of controversy though has made itself prevalent lately in the form of the spoken word or the haphazard uploading of images on social media – where rugby league players are making a name for themselves for all the wrong reasons.

Instances like New South Wales and Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farah suggesting to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard that she should consider buying a noose for her birthday or Josh Dugan losing his Canberra Raiders contract and the punters respect for a myriad of reasons involving social media has essentially led to tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook statuses becoming news.

In an era where NRL clubs are continuously warn their players of the pitfalls of social media, the question is – is it fair that personal thoughts of individuals should be spun into back page news or should players, in their privileged positions as role models in society become accountable for their actions?

Retired Parramatta, New South Wales and Australian Kangaroos representative Eric Grothe Jr. believes at the end of the day it all comes down to the individual, believing those who use social media need to be accountable for their actions. Grothe, who has since signaled his intentions to return to the NRL next season, attributes his use of social media as a way to connect with the masses of people he never meets.

“I never put anything on social media that I’m not willing to back up. In case I put something up there and it got in newspaper the next day and people were saying, ‘why did you tweet that?’ Everything is pre-thought with me. I don’t just blindly tweet things,” Grothe said.

“It comes down to how the individual feels about what they put out there on Twitter. Personally, I probably look at more things than not and cringe about what people put out. I don’t think some people realise until they actually send it and see the reaction, and what big a mistake some of the things they tweet or put on Facebook can make.

“One of the best pieces of advice you could give someone I reckon is when you’ve had a few drinks – put your phone away. It’s probably the smartest thing to do. Try and ask yourself is this going to be regretted in the morning, if so, don’t do it. You have to be accountable… if you put things out there in the world for people to see you have to expect the repercussions.”

Grothe isn’t fazed about the current media landscape’s use of social media interactions as news either or as he puts it “off the back of something tweeted from a footballer that’s stuffed up”.

“[Back when he played] there were programs where people would come around and show you what to and what not to do on social media. It’s pretty much common sense with me – I just never get to personal or never get to deep on there, I don’t see it as diary for everyone to read,” Grothe said.

“With the Josh Dugan stuff, for example, he has to be open to it if he’s going to put photos up or if anyone is going to put photos up of them with their shirts off, drinking drinks and doing gang signs, they have to be ready for it to be in the newspaper nowadays – it’s just the way it is.”

So much of an influence that social media has had on the reporting of rugby league and the NRL in the media that up-and-coming and recently graduated journalists are beginning to add social media experience to their journalistic arsenal.

Ricardo Ascenso, for example, recently graduated from Sydney’s Macleay College, has racked up a social media repertoire that others can only dream off.  For those not savvy with his achievements, Ascenso runs the ever so popular @NRLNEWS Twitter handle. The most popular unofficial news account dedicated to the National Rugby League, an account followed by over 23,000 individuals.

“@NRL_NEWS was basically all part of that process I guess to just get involved in anything to do with the media and social media side being that’s what it is basically about these days. It was kind of the first step… to eventually go into more exciting things,” Ascenso said.

“To be honest, when I first started taking over it all I was expecting a couple of thousand [followers] tops if that. For it to get to 23000, I’m pretty sure it’s the single biggest amount of followers for an independent NRL news account on twitter and that’s awesome. It wasn’t really anything that I would’ve been expecting when it all started up.”

Boosting an impressive social media resume appears to be an important aspect to Ascenso’s future success considering his thoughts on social media in the realm of journalism.

“Nowadays media can’t exist without social media. I guess I sort of just started doing it [@NRLNEWS] because you could kind of see where things were heading,” Ascenso said.

“In some aspects, online media has probably and will continue to overtake the newspaper sort of stuff. There’s always a place for the written side of things when it comes to newspapers and magazines and I think in how they’re presented is basically down to interpretation and how someone sees the effect that one has on the other.

“Things break on social media quicker these days then they do on any other media because it’s right there and accessible so really if you wanted to you could say it is the fault of media these days because the minute something happens it’s on social media before anywhere else.”

With Twitter handles, like Ascenso’s and unofficial NRL blogs becoming increasingly common it appears in some instances it is up to the club to educate those they employ, the players. If ever a club was to be diligent in the face of controversies surrounding social media and the aftermath of it played out on a grander scale then the Newcastle Knights are trying their absolute hardest to avoid such things.

Former Newcastle Knights first-grade player, Marvin Karawana is proof that such lectures on social media etiquette are working. That accountability, in light of the ever present forms of online and social media’s continued growth, is a lesson that appears to have stuck solid with most players upon hearing what their club has to say about matters concerned with social media.

While he may have retired from the NRL back in 2011, Karawana, who played 34 games for the Newcastle Knights over five years, describes his social media use as casual thing to do but understands that it is just another aspect of being responsible in the public eye.

“We had people that the NRL had organised to come in and speak to us as a group on the dangers of social media. Personally, I think it’s just common sense that if you are going to be on a social networking platform then you should know that certain things you put out there could get you into trouble… the people who came in to speak to us reiterated all of the dangers and things not to do,” Karawana said.

“[Players] just need to think what they are about to post before they do it. If you think it is going to be something that could get you in trouble, then either don’t post it or ask somebody else before you do. I think it can be a good thing for a player [though], as long as they are responsible and think about things before they post.”

Ironically, Karawana, who noted that if he had a few spare minutes during the day he would read through his Twitter timeline to see if there is any news going on, isn’t a fan of news being produced from social media occurrences.

“People just have to accept how things are now, and that if they are saying things or posting pictures on a public forum, then anybody can see it and it could end up in the newspapers,” Karawana said.

On the same note, James Elias, a current reserve-grade player for the Knights, resonates with the same lessons learnt by Karawana during his time at the club. Elias, unlike a lot of players, is not on Twitter but still understands the pitfalls involved on other platforms of social media.

“They [Newcastle Knights] do social media sessions every year, one or two sessions just before pre-season. It’s more like a lecture, a lecture where they just hammer everything into you about what they expect from you and what not to put up in social media,” Elias said.

“They give you advice to obviously watch what you put up on Facebook and all that sort of stuff. Putting photos up of you in Knights clothing – you’re not allowed to do it. Make sure what you’re putting up isn’t rude or isn’t going to bring the club into disrepute.

“When they do have instances through the season, like the Josh Dugan stuff, they’ll bring us in and talk about it and highlight why it’s a good idea not to put stuff like that on social media.”

So what has Elias taking from his time in the lectures involving social media etiquette?

“I definitely try and keep everything I have on the internet at a minimum and write stuff that isn’t out there. I keep it generic. Even if I wasn’t a football player, I would definitely keep as much personal details as possible off social media,” Elias said.

“If you’re putting yourself out there by saying all that sort of crap like Josh Dugan was… well then you know he pretty much deserved it. I think there’s a certain line you cross. It comes back to an individual being accountable.”

Accountability is a word that has been mentioned a lot. As social media grows and expands into news media, such stories are going to come from these platforms if a rugby league player isn’t careful.  Nicholas Janzen, a journalist at Big League and NRL.com, believes that social media use is the same as driving a car or walking the streets or doing anything else that requires some level of responsibility in society.

“There’s a proper way to use it and there’s an improper way to use. Obviously some people take time to understand how to use it correctly… people have lived and learned and suffered consequences from what they’ve said on social media,” Janzen said.

“At the end of the day, you are essentially saying these things and they can still be used in a court of law, they’re still potentially defamatory these comments… and people need to think before they say things and type things.”

As for its role in journalism, Janzen believes that while it is useful it is not an imperative when it comes to the profession.

“It’s [Social Media] a great tool to undertake research because you can immediately delve into the thoughts and beliefs of your subject without even getting dressed. On the whole it is a supplementary tool that can help you shape your article and help you on the path to help you researching the subject… and educating your audience,” said Janzen.

While his tweets may be news-oriented, Janzen insists this is because of the privileged position he finds himself in within his role as a journalist.

“If on the off chance I receive a press release and I’m in front of a computer and having a look at Twitter and I know that I’m going to be one of the first few people to reveal something I’ll happily pop it up there. It’s just a way of giving people news first and allowing the pure facts to get out there straight away.”

We may have dismissed those who said social media was going to affect journalism but now no matter which way you look at, whether from a rugby league perspective or in a general news sense, social media is only going to continue its expansion into journalism – whether we like it or not.

As social media expands, accountability has perhaps become nothing but necessary.