Social Media and the Rio Olympics

Linfield’s mass communications professors explore social media’s place at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.

We’ve seen green water, #PhelpsFace, Usain doing what Usain does, uncomfortably close men’s basketball games and the return of golf. Nearly every second of the Rio Olympics have been captured on video, but not everything makes it onto social media. We caught up with Lisa Weidman and Susan Currie Sivek, both associate professors of mass communication, and asked them a few questions about social media and the Olympics.

Social media has become even more popular and ingrained in culture since the last summer Olympic games. In fact, some popular platforms, like Snapchat, were not even a factor in 2012. How is social media changing the way we experience the Games?

Professor Susan Sivek
“Oddly, I feel like social media have been both unifying and divisive during these Olympics. Folks are talking about events and personalities and sharing their reactions, just as they do with any other event today. However, I also see people staying off of social media or trying hard to avoid spoilers. The varying time zones and broadcast schedules have made it hard to experience the Games communally. I think people have also been disappointed by the tight restrictions on sharing video and GIFs from the Olympics. For example, Twitter has taken down tweets and even suspended accounts of people who posted them. That’s put a bit of a damper on the comedic opportunities we all enjoy in social media — or even the inspirational moments that are often shared.”
Professor Lisa Weidman
“There certainly are more ways to engage with the Games and the athletes today than ever before. I agree with Dr. Sivek that NBC Universal’s broadcast schedule has made it hard to experience the Games communally. Unlike broadcasts of the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, which are aired at the same moment for everyone in the country, broadcasts of the Olympic events air at different times in different parts of the country, so people in the Eastern time zone are seeing the coverage first and then posting about it on social media, giving away the outcomes to people in later time zones. It is particularly hard for those of us on the West Coast to avoid spoilers on social media. It’s even worse for anyone living in Alaska or Hawaii. So the ‘two-screen experience’ can be somewhat frustrating when watching the Olympics.
Another thing I noticed on television is that NBCU periodically shows the social media posts of Olympic athletes, so even audience members who do not participate on social media are experiencing the games through that lens.”

How have athletes, in particular, been taking advantage of social media to build their own personal brand? How might they use it to their advantage?

“Many of the athletes are posting about their Olympic experiences on social media. I’m not sure that these posts are building their personal brand, though. I think their performance in the Games is what is building their brand — and their social media following. AdWeek magazine commissioned data-analytics firm ListenFirst to track engagement with Team USA athletes on social media. In the first week of the Games (Aug. 1–7), gymnast Simone Biles and soccer player Alex Morgan both generated more than 1.5 million engagements across Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Wikipedia and YouTube. In the second week (Aug. 8–14), gymnast Aly Raisman topped the list with nearly 6.9 million engagements, followed by Simone Biles with nearly 6.5 million engagements and swimmer Michael Phelps with 6.3 million, according to AdWeek. That was the week in which the two gymnasts won a team gold medal, they each won a medal in the individual all-around competition (including Raisman’s emotional ‘redemption’ medal), and Phelps announced his retirement on Facebook Live. By Aug. 16, Biles had accumulated 2 million followers on Instagram and more than 500,000 Twitter followers.
I think these athletes accumulate followers and engagements based more on their performance and how they are presented on television than through the content of their posts. That said, posts that are light-hearted, authentic and/or surprising seem to generate the most positive responses.
Of course, not all of the engagements with Olympic athletes were positive. Gymnast Gabby Douglas experienced the ugly side of social media when she was harshly criticized for everything from her appearance to not placing her hand over her heart during the national anthem. Mean-spirited people even wrote nasty replies to the apology she posted on Twitter for her perceived lack of patriotism.”
“I haven’t followed individual athletes or related memes so much, to be honest, with the exception of heartily enjoying #PhelpsFace. However, I did especially enjoy a non-athlete’s response to the Games — Leslie Jones’ tweets and her eventual trip to Rio. I was saddened by how she was harassed recently on Twitter following the release of Ghostbusters. Her return to Twitter and her hilarious, spontaneous reactions to the events of the Games — first from afar, then in person — have just been a joy to watch unfold. I also loved the images (mainly on Facebook, I think) that highlighted the varied backgrounds of the women on the U.S. gymnastics team. What a fantastic message about diversity, cooperation and strength.”

What are your thoughts on the stringent rules that the IOC is trying to place on non-sponsor companies with regard to social media in particular?

“I think some of these rules have been around for a while (having been tangentially involved in this drama a few years ago). I find their demands that non-sponsor companies ‘not create social media posts that are Olympic themed … or congratulate Olympic performance’ to be opposed to what I perceive as the spirit of the Olympics. However we may feel about commercial speech, it is a big part of our contemporary discourse. Not allowing companies to join the celebration of the Games and the athletes involved just seems antithetical to our celebration of the Games. I understand wanting to protect copyrighted material and trademarks, but we can all find ways to discuss the Olympics without using those.”
“I understand why the IOC wants to protect the value of Olympics sponsorship, but preventing non-sponsors from even wishing athletes good luck or using the #TeamUSA or #Rio2016 hashtags is ridiculous. Clever companies can sometimes find a way to be part of the conversation without breaking the rules, though. During the 2014 winter Olympics, for example, Airbnb capitalized on the spontaneous hashtag #SochiProblems that early-arriving journalists and fans were using on social media to complain about their hotels. Airbnb tweeted that it had many housing units available in the Russian host city. This year, Google invented the 2016 Doodle Fruit Games in which animated fruits compete in Olympic-style events in the daily doodle on Google’s search page and in the Google app. Athletic apparel company Oiselle created its own hashtag, #BigEvent, to refer to the Olympics. Others are waiting until the USOC’s blackout period ends on Aug. 24 to post about the Olympics. Meanwhile, a small business in Minnesota, has filed a lawsuit against the USOC over the right to talk about the Olympics on social media. I look forward to hearing the outcome of that case.”

You’ve looked into how the media represented Olympic athletes in previous Games. What did you find?

“Back in 1996, I conducted a study of how the TV announcers spoke about athletes competing in the Atlanta Games. Replicating many studies that were conducted before mine, I compared the announcers’ language regarding female athletes to their language regarding male athletes competing in the same sports. Did they talk about the athleticism of the men more than of the women? Did they emphasize the traditional femininity of the female athletes? Contrary to most of the previous research, I found no statistical difference in the treatment of the male and female athletes. That year, 1996, was dubbed ‘the year of the women’ because of the great success of the U.S. women who competed, and it appeared to be the year when the announcers finally treated the female athletes with the respect they deserve as world-class athletes. However, outside of the parameters of my study, I did observe that when the announcers talked about female athletes, they tended to tell stories of all the things the women had overcome to get to the Olympics, whereas when the announcers talked about male athletes, they tended to list all of the men’s accomplishments. One could argue that this was a subtle way of undermining the credibility of the women who were competing. I’m happy to report that I haven’t noticed this disparity in the announcing this year.”

Does social media give athletes an opportunity to better control their image?

I would answer with a qualified yes. Athletes with a large following on social media may be able to shape their public image through their posts — or defend themselves in response to criticisms or negative portrayals in traditional media — but most Olympic athletes do not have followings that rival the size of the television audience, which has been ranging from about 28 to 31 million prime-time viewers (including broadcast, cable and digital). In addition, NBC’s announcers, many of whom have been covering their respective sports for at least 20 years, carry a great deal of authority when they make pronouncements about the athletes competing in the games. On the other hand, athletes who feel they have been misrepresented can usually turn to the other media covering the Games to tell their side of the story, as was the case with Gabby Douglas when she was heavily criticized on social media.”

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