An interview with Sam McGaw, accidental Les Miles rumor amplifier
If you're a college football fan, you heard the absurd and baseless and immediately debunked rumor Saturday night about Les Miles approaching the end of his time at LSU due to alleged illicit behavior. It sprang from a rival message board, caught fire on Twitter and died once Football Scoop's Scott Roussel and CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman made good and sure there was nothing to it.
To be crystal clear: there is nothing to it and never was anything to it. The things to learn here are how this silly thing took off and what happens to those who found themselves caught up in it. It's not interesting as news, since it wasn't news, but as a social media phenomenon.
The most critical figure in the rumor's short and busy life proved to be Sam McGaw, a Western Kentucky broadcasting major whose Twitter follower count surged overnight from 238 to more than 30,000, including LSU fans, general football fans, football beat writers, WKU students, spammers and so on.
This started when Sam tweeted the following:
He then spent the rest of the night and much of the next morning clarifying the rumor's source, defending himself and descending into the pure anarchy that is the SEC football rumor realm, a realm best avoided at all costs. I spoke with Sam, who's now destined to become a mythical figure in LSU fan lore.
As a broadcast major, what would you say your journalism ambitions are?
I started out in college wanting to do TV, loved doing sports. After I did an internship, I started getting more into the sportswriting and sports talk radio. I enjoy opinion-based journalism. I took a journalism course, which was just print journalism. I started my own blog. The whole thing I want to do is talk sports for a living. Who doesn't want to talk sports and make money?
This Les Miles thing. Where does it rank in terms of journalism lessons for you?
The main lesson I learned out of any of this ... One lesson was, I'm grateful for my broadcast professors teaching me ethics. I used the world allegedly. I used the word rumors. Making sure that, hey, I'm not just throwing this out of the blue. I'm making sure that I'm not accusing anybody of doing something. I'm just mentioning this is something people are speaking of.
But the main lesson I've learned, and I do this all the time, but I should've started out with, "According to some message board ... " And then give the rumor. I feel like that would've cleared up a lot of stuff instead of having all these people blow me up and me being able to finally tweet out, "Hey, this is where I got this info from."
Yeah, when this kind of rumor sh*t jumps up, there are two ways to be careful with it and still talk about it. Like, one is just to make fun of it, and one is to point people directly at the source. And if you searched Nick Saban's name right now, I'm sure you'd see 10 no-name people with no avatars reporting Nick Saban's leaving for the Cowboys, and nobody takes it and runs with it. Do you think that you having your name as your handle and a photograph as your avatar and having a bio that mentions journalism stuff, do you think that lent credibility, so that people took that tweet as an actual report from an actual journalist?
I think so. It's all about doing your homework. I'll tell you how this all started, first, before I go into that.
I was in Knoxville this weekend, Boxing Weekend with a bunch of friends, and one of my little brother's friends said, "Hey, have you heard that rumor going around about Les Miles?" He goes, "People talking about how he's stepping down on Monday because of the alleged affair with a student." He showed me on somebody's Facebook page that had already posted it. He's not involved in journalism or anything, so I dismissed that.
So I went on Twitter just to search whether anybody's talking about Les Miles, just so I'm not throwing this out there out of the blue. Sure enough, I saw one guy with at least 5,000 followers tweet about it. And he tweeted it as a rumor, just like I did. Didn't have any facts. And there was a bunch of people also tweeting it, about 30 minutes before I even said anything.
So I looked to see where they found a lot of their information. The people I was talking to said BamaOnline.com, the roundtable discussion. Over there, there was a guy saying, "I know some people who are close to the athletic department at LSU, blah blah blah," and people were talking about it.
Did I think it was true or not? I didn't ever think it was plausible. Anybody can say anything on the internet. So this is just a funny, interesting rumor.
I only had 238 followers. I never expected to reach over 300 in my life. So I just casually tweeted it. Hey, there's a rumor going around that Les Miles allegedly stepping down on Monday after allegedly having an affair with a student. I made sure to state it as a rumor. Didn't want anybody to think I was saying that as a fact or anything like that. And sure enough, the ball got rolling.
I think because people saw my Twitter account, saw my bio, "Well, he's a reporter/anchor." Well, no, I'm a student reporter/anchor. I have no connections to Louisiana, any of that. And people started bashing me for it.
A majority of the people following me and bashing me on Twitter are LSU fans. But when I tweeted that, there was absolutely no malicious intent. It was more just a talking point for a bunch of buddies.
Do you think the Western Kentucky connection, with Bobby Petrino there ... it's almost like people thought there was some sort of cheating husbands coaches network.
I would hope people would be smarter than that, you know? Because we have one coach here who's doing a hell of a job and doing everything our athletic director's asking of him. But for anybody to think, "Oh, he has Bobby Petrino as a head football coach? He must know something about Les Miles," that's far from the case.
How much do you think the slow news week played into the reaction?
It's a depressing time for football fans across America. This whole thing is a snowball effect. People want something to talk about. So when people see this Les Miles thing and start retweeting it, it's something for them to talk about. But when I said it was just a rumor, people who were retweeting me were doing the same thing I did.
I'm sure there will be other rumors that'll come out during the offseason.
After you tweeted that, what was the wait for the reaction? I'm sure there was a wave of retweets, then a wave of angry backlash. How long did all that take?
As soon as I tweeted that, about the rumor, one of my buddies immediately tweeted at me, "BamaOnline.com." So he'd already seen it and knew what I was talking about.
All of a sudden, I started getting some retweets, and that was cool. The most retweets I'd ever had before was like 25, when Kentucky lost to Louisville in basketball. [With this one] I hit like 30 immediately. I started getting retweets and retweets and retweets and thought, "People are overanalyzing this," so I decided to make sure everybody knew this is a rumor, this is nothing more.
Then people started telling me I'm gonna get sued about this. Telling me I've lost all credibility as a journalist. And, yeah, I know you're not supposed to report rumors, but I wasn't even acting as a journalist when I mentioned that. I mentioned the word rumor. I wasn't acting as a journalist.
But the snowball effect kept going and going. Before I know it, I have 1,000 followers. That's cool, but people shouldn't be following me about this. All of a sudden, 1,200 followers. Then I look at my phone, 2,000. It was, at one point, like 200 to 300 followers a minute.
What's it like being one of the, like, 50 or so biggest college football media personalities on Twitter all of a sudden?
It's pretty unbelievable, and I don't enjoy it. There's a lot of hard-working journalists out there. There's a lot of people that put in tons of work day in and day out. These guys have 5,000, 6,000 followers, like you have 6,000 followers, and I see all these people following me on just one tweet, but all these people that work their butts off to get their news and perspective out there, people just overpass it. People don't want the news, people want gossip, and that's a shame in social media.
Thirty thousand followers doesn't do a lot for me. It's like, "Hey, I'm popular on the internet."
So you're planning to use your new powers for good.
I didn't work hard for that little tweet. I just saw a rumor and posted it and people just snowballed it. It's frustrating to see as a person in the broadcasting industry, seeing a lot of other people's work, to see them not get recognized. I want to make sure I help people that work hard that I know get recognized.
I want to help the people that do need a jump start. That's the ultimate goal out of any of this.
I've already had two people mention to me about sportswriting jobs. I'm not gonna utilize my recent Twitter fame to get a job. That's not how I was raised. If you guys think I'm a decent writer, then sure, but I'm not gonna take a job just because I have 30,000 followers.
Wait, so you've been approached about two jobs since Saturday night because of this?
Wow. Can I ask vaguely who?
One of them wrote an article about me Saturday night.
Wow. That's pretty fascinating. So I see both sides of this. Your tweet, it was technically accurate. There were rumors stating that. But people hold a person approaching the field of journalism to a higher standard. So I get the backlash too. If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently, if anything?
The only thing I would do differently, before I even said the rumor, is source it according to message boards and other accounts, so people won't think it's my work. Other than that, I wouldn't do anything different. People have told me, "You should delete your account." Nah, I don't do that. You stand by your word.
People are trash-talking me, but most of them have two followers and look like spammers. The people that are trash-talking me, they're kinda doing worse than what I did, tweeting at someone they don't even know. People hide behind their Twitter accounts and abuse other people all the time on Twitter, especially celebrities.
What if someone were to say that sharing a rumor that is obviously irresponsible, to turn it around on you and make that same point about talking about people?
There was no journalistic intent there. It was just word of mouth, like being in the office. "Hey, did you hear about this?"
When I saw that Bruce Feldman had talked to his sources at LSU who said that rumor isn't true, I made sure to tweet that out.
While tweeting a rumor was not the most logical idea out there, I didn't have any malicious intent. I didn't have the journalistic credibility, as a student reporter at Western Kentucky, to ever think it would turn into this. I'm reaping these benefits and all this stuff for something I didn't deserve.
People rightfully can bash me about this. It was a rumor. It was gossip. But my intent wasn't to start the rumor. I didn't start the rumor. I meant it for my small following.
Did you get any sleep Saturday night?
I was at UT for Boxing Weekend. I didn't go out. A lot of people went out. When I was trying to make sure people knew it was just rumors, my eyes were on my phone. I slept probably four hours that night. I'm not worried about it going forward.
What's the craziest thing somebody's said to you?
Here's one right here. "Just heard from a reliable source that Sam McGaw had an incestuous relationship with his sister and his dog." That's nice. I don't even have a sister. [Edit. We'll a.ssume the dog part is false as well.]
Surprisingly, I've had a lot of people defend me, too. You giving me the chance to defend myself. A majority of people that are talking to me are LSU fans. They're passionate about Les Miles, and I'm okay with that. I enjoy him and think he's a hell of a football coach. None of this was done with malicious intent.
Somebody asked me if I'm going to a LSU game this year. Oh, yeah, I'll sit in the front row. They'll love that.
The lessons to me are obvious: if you're going to engage with message board bullsh*t, be very clear you're treating it as both bullsh*t and as something produced by a specific group of people, and know that how you present yourself on social media can greatly sway the unintended impact of even the most idle chatter.