Patriots fans and the dark side of social media

Sports fans routinely take to Twitter and Facebook to post threatening messages after their favorite team loses. What does it say about us?

The ugliness of humanity was on full display in 140 characters after Sunday's American Football Conference Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos.

Twitter erupted with personal attacks on Patriots All-Pro placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, who missed a point in the first quarter that not only would've tied the game, but possibly was the difference in the Pats' 20-18 loss to the Broncos -- and a possible chance to go the Super Bowl.

The tweets ranged from fans hoping Gostkowski's children would die to recommending he slit his wrists. There was a healthy amount of profanity too.

The Patriots declined to comment Monday about the fans' reaction to Gostkowski on social media. Gostkowski hasn't discussed the fan reaction but did say Sunday's miss was a "nightmare" scenario (the last extra point he missed was during his rookie season in 2006). "I feel like I lost the game for the team," he said, according to Sports Illustrated. "I feel sorry for myself, but I don't expect people to feel sorry for me."

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Twitter users had a field day when New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in nine years.

Twitter

While attacks on athletes on social media are nothing new, the outrage on Sunday is the latest example of the truly dark side of social media. Tech giants including Twitter and Facebook say they make it easier to connect us all around the globe. But for every empowering event such as the Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter, there's a dark controversy such as GamerGate, which targeted activists with death threats. They remind us that people of all stripes are using social media.

People act this way for a variety of reasons, but Adam Earnheardt, a professor at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, believes it's in part because we're still learning how to use social media.

There used to be a time where we would share our angst with a small group of people, but with the Internet, some angry fans don't always think about the consequences of sending out messages for the whole world to see. "You cheer for the team, own a jersey and may decorate your social media sites with their colors, but then turn around and destroy them on social media when they lose," he said. "What does that say about your loyalty?"

Fan outbursts on social media are part of the social phenomena known as "BIRGing and CORFing," he added. Fans go BIRGing (Basking in the Reflective Glow) when their teams win, and wallow in CORFing (Cutting Off the Reflective Failure) when they lose.

As for the Patriots, Boston and the New England area have a rich history of fanship, almost loyal to a fault. With Patriot fans, you're not just talking about a team, but the soul of a geographical region whose team has not had a losing season since 2000 and has won four Super Bowls in that stretch.

"So when their team does poorly, it hits that identity of being a New Englander and that's a deeper wound to heal," Earnheardt said. "I also think they are just a little spoiled."

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