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How Twitter Covered Lance Armstrong's Downfall

The final speaker in this AoIR 2013 panel is Tim Highfield, whose focus is on the doping scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong between August 2013 and January 2013, from USADA stripping Armstrong of his titles to his confession interview with Oprah. This draws on a number of different datasets, including tweets mentioning @lancearmstrong during the 2012 Tour de France as well as tweets mentioning 'Armstrong' in subsequent months.

During the 2012 Tour, reports emerged that several riders had testified against Armstrong, generating substantial discussion with the Tour de France Twitter community as an extension of the fan/athlete para social interaction - with fans making both critical and supportive statements towards Armstrong. Subsequent spikes in activity surround Armstrong's stepping down from the Livestrong foundation and the Oprah interviews.

Twitter data around the August event are also contaminated by the death of Neil Armstrong, which naturally also generated a substantial amount of tweets. But even in spite of such issues, what becomes evident is that the reaction of the Twitter community around these crises is mainly in the form of retweets and original tweets - and that some of the jokes are recycled from spike to spike. Some of these jokes, incidentally, are also quite mean-spirited, referring for example to Armstrong's well-publicised battle with cancer.

Around the Oprah interviews, it is notable that no single hashtag emerges - rather, a series of snarky hashtags (#doprah, #livewrong, #liestrong) are used, and parody accounts are also prominent. Armstrong's own Twitter account is not @mentioned especially often in this context, interestingly - earlier, he had been @mentioned more frequently especially in messages of support. Some critical messages are directed at him, however, for example from other riders.

There is a change of frames here, then: the mockery is becoming less light-hearted and more negative, and other breaking news stories are conflated into the Armstrong discussion for humorous effect. New jokes emerge and are virally retweeted and reworked as they spread across the network.

The focal accounts for breaking news in this story are news accounts, but also celebrities - are they emerging as new kinds of gatekeepers, then? Also, trending topics like the Armstrong story are used for piggybacking: spam and other material is loosely connected to the story in order to give if boarder visibility.