Extreme politics and dramatic sport merged during the Super Bowl on Sunday, when the underdog Atlanta Falcons fell in the final minutes of the championship game to the New England Patriots, who now hold five National Football League titles.
The most common reaction to the outcome of the game was profound disappointment for Falcons fans. For fans of the Patriots, they saw their team claw their way out of a 25 point deficit to win in the first ever overtime period in Super Bowl history. But for observers online, especially Twitter, the game was about more than just sport, but represented a battle in the ongoing American Cyber Civil War between the country's rival political factions. In this case, the two sides were alt-right white supremacists versus everybody else, usually the left but traditional Republicans as well. Some people use the term #resist to signal their opposition to President Donald Trump.
Bullying and insulting strangers on social media is nothing new, but the political dimension has grown in recent years to the point where it's become a kind of psychological civil warfare. Gone are the days when the arguments were over whether who was the best captain on Star Trek. (The answer is Captain Benjamin Sisko).
The fights online are reminiscent of the telecommunications revolution that preceded the American Civil War. Then, the telegraph spread information about secession and abolition at speeds never before seen in human history. Today, the internet allows for even more people to get angry at each other, spread their philosophies, and intimidate each other.
For thousands of Twitter users, Super Bowl LI was a battlefield in a Cyber Civil War. Here's how the fight went down. Unlike the Super Bowl, the battle online didn't have a winner.
The alt-right fired the first shots:
Minutes before the beginning of the game, alt-right Twitter personality Richard Spencer set up the New England Patriots, its coach Bill Bellichick and quarterback, Tom Brady, as mascots for his cause.
Rooting for the Pats!— Richard Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) February 6, 2017
1/ Belichick & Brady support Trump
2/ Three White widereceivers
3/ Consistently NFL's whitest team
4/ ATL is dreadful
The fight online followed the course of the fortunes of the two teams, and Atlanta gained an early lead.
In the minutes after Spencer sent out the Tweet, the Atlanta Falcons scored three touchdowns. It seemed as though Spencer had spoken far too soon. Someone took an opportunity to "dunk" on the white supremacist again. That's Twitter parlance for a witty or biting retort.
But then the alt-right gained the upper hand.
A series of turnovers in the last quarter of the game let the Patriots come back from a huge deficit to tie up the game, and eventually win in overtime. Spencer capitalised on this to try to humiliate his opponent.
Your tweet aged like a fine wine. https://t.co/LZsb5Kas6r— Richard Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) February 6, 2017
The alt-right didn't waste any time celebrating.
Spencer and his allies online wasted little time before declaring the Patriots' victory as a victory for their cause and, indeed, for white America.
Will Atlanta riot after #superbowl loss? And more importantly how can they tell?— Richard Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) February 6, 2017
One user posted a photo of Trump with Tom Brady, the Patriots' quarterback who keeps a "Make America Great Again" hat in his locker.
One tweet, sent from an account calling itself "@AngryStaffOfficer" sums this up well.
The bayonets of the African-American 54th Massachusetts would beg to differ. As would the Nazis killed by New England's 26th Division. STFU. pic.twitter.com/KdAulLNyGC— Angry Staff Officer (@pptsapper) February 6, 2017
The 54th Massachusetts was the first armed all-African American regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War.
This online bickering could have even more real world consequences.
Spencer found out the hard way how people react to his advocacy for "peaceful ethnic cleansing" and the white "ethnostate." On Inauguration Day in Washington DC, a masked anti-fascist punched Spencer in the face while he was doing an interview with Australian television. Twitter users post the gif of the punch when trying to score points against Spencer.
During the Super Bowl, one person posted the punch and dared Spencer to talk trash about Atlanta in the city itself. Atlanta, "The City Too Busy to Hate," was the cradle of the US civil rights movement, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr made some of his first strides against segregation in the South. The city has also drawn the ire of Trump himself, calling the metropolis "crime infested" after its congressional representative questioned the legitimacy of his presidency.
The rivalries born in the virtual world of Twitter threaten to spill further out into the world outside of cyber space. "This f**king **hole didn't get punched hard enough," wrote @yourfathersdad.
Aside from Trump supporting Tom Brady, a personal friend of the president, another Patriots player expressed dissent against the administration. The rift inside the championship team is emblematic of the country's divide.
The internet is not just a place for angry arguments between strangers.
One African American player on the Patriots, Martellus Bennett, addressed reporters after the game saying that he would not join the rest of his team in visiting the White House, a tradition for the winning Super Bowl team. Bennett has been critical of Trump, a dissenting voice on a team that has been caught up by the views of its leadership in the chaotic marketplace of mean ideas that is the internet.
Bennett, speaking to reporters on Sunday night, said he felt his team would support his decision not to go, and that he would rather just focus on football than the rancour in Washington.
"It is what it is. People know how I feel about it," Bennett said. "Just follow me on Twitter. You just don't bring that to work. The only thing that really matters is getting this championship. Everybody has different beliefs. We all have our beliefs. And the thing is we accept people for who they are and that's the biggest thing about what this country is really about. I don't really care what you believe...I'm not mad at you. For me, over all, it's just: Accept people for who they are."
On Tuesday, another Patriots player, Devin McCoutry, said he wouldn't be visiting the White House either.
Where all this will end up is anybody's guess.
AUTHOR: Wilson Dizard