This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first part, “What Kawhi Leonard’s Free Agency Taught Us About Privacy,” here.
Kawhi Leonard’s 2019 Free Agency was unlike anything the NBA has seen before. The 28-year-old superstar who just led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship elected not to return to the Raptors, instead choosing to play for his hometown Los Angeles Clippers alongside First Team All-NBA forward Paul George. And while Leonard’s choice to return home wasn’t all that surprising, it was an enlightening five-plus days leading up to his decision where we learned a lot about truth in the social media era.
“Leonard has become something of a Rorschach test the past couple of seasons,” Ramona Shelburne writes for ESPN. “What you see in him is as much a reflection of who you are, as it is of him. He reveals little about himself, but everything about those who project on to him.”
Throughout Kawhi’s free agency process, people projected many things on to Kawhi. NBA media and lesser-known “sources” alike took to social media, predominantly Twitter, to express their opinions and unconfirmed information about where Kawhi was going to sign and why. This is how narratives are developed in the NBA: a few NBA media members and fans start to say the same thing — that they’re “hearing” this, that they are “99 percent sure” about this, that a “source close to the situation” said this — and the narrative takes shape.
First it was the Lakers that were believed to be the favourites to land Kawhi. Then Kawhi flew to Toronto and along with #kawhiwatch came insiders like Jalen Rose and a host of random online sources predicting Kawhi re-signs with the Raptors. The Clippers were reported to be out of the race until all of a sudden Kawhi chose the Clippers alongside an unforeseen trade that brought George there too.
People were not only expressing information about where Kawhi was going to sign; they were debating where he was. Some spotted him in Toronto while others argued he was in San Diego at the same time. But despite nobody knowing anything about Kawhi the entire time, people still made assumptions and reported false information about the private star. And they did it through social media and predominantly Twitter.
People are making careers by being “insiders” when nobody knows if their sources are dependable or their information is accurate. One thing Kawhi’s free agency taught us is that the truth is harder than ever to come by in the social media era, exacerbated by platforms like Twitter that incentivize controversial takes and new information, regardless of if it’s real or not.
Days after Kawhi made his decision to sign with the Clippers, he still hasn’t released a statement regarding his decision. But you wouldn’t think that was the case if you look on Twitter, where people are still claiming to know why Kawhi chose the Clippers despite almost a week of proof that nobody knows anything. People are claiming that he signed with the Clippers because it was close to home, because he wanted to play for Doc, because he didn’t want the spotlight the Lakers necessitate, because Toronto was ultimately too cold. But the reality is that these are all assumptions and we won’t know anything until Kawhi talks about his decision publically, if he ever does.
The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said: “the medium is the message.” When it comes to sports and social media, Twitter is the dominant medium. And it is Twitter’s role in all of this that needs to be analyzed and criticized: why talk about the character of individual “insiders” who use Twitter as their platform to spread lies when we should be talking about the platform itself that enables and even incentivizes these lies to be spread?
Shelburne said, “[Kawhi] reveals little about himself, but everything about those who project on to him.” While that remains true, the individuals really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things; they are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, impossible to pin down and easy to replace. What really matters and needs to be analyzed is the medium they are using to project this false information: Twitter. It is Twitter that has been around much longer than any of these “insiders” and it is Twitter that will continue to grow and become even more powerful than it already is.
All of this false information flows through Twitter, yet people constantly refresh their Twitter feed to take more of it in. As a society, we are only becoming more and more addicted to social media and Twitter. Kawhi’s free agency taught us that the truth is harder than ever to come by these days. If “the medium is the message,” then Twitter is at fault for disguising that truth, incentivizing countless people to express their opinions as factual information without consequence.