You don’t have to work for an online sports news outlet to know how the sausage is made.

A piece of news or a player quote appears on social media. It might be accompanied by a graphic or a link to the source’s own social media account, lending it an air of legitimacy. Sure, you could double-check to make sure that the information is accurate but you figure the outlet sharing it seems reputable enough. You’re pretty sure you’ve heard of them. And besides, other people are already tweeting about it and sharing it on their accounts, which legitimizes it in its own way. Instead of taking the time to verify its accuracy, you could be turning that piece of information into your own content, grabbing whatever sliver of the pie is left by the time you publish your post or quote tweet it. Sure, you might find out later that the quote lacked proper context or the information was not entirely correct, but it’s too late anyway. It’s part of the public record now and everyone is already onto the next thing.

Plenty of think pieces and media critiques have poured over the state of modern journalism and its relationship to social media, let alone the world of online sports news, but this cycle has proven itself a hard faucet to turn off. And while it’s not entirely the evil machine that many would have you believe, for every legitimate Woj Bomb there are hundreds of imposter tweets or fake accounts trying to troll their way into the story as well.

A quick look around the sports media landscape shows you why. Entire websites live and die on the constant flow of this kind of information. Some thrive to the tune of millions of dollars. Others boost their careers by ensuring their tweet is the one that you’re embedding in your blog post. Legacy publishers have upended their entire strategies to get in on the algorithm. News aggregators make it financially lucrative to churn and burn. Hell, we here at Comeback Media (Awful Announcing’s parent company) certainly aren’t above playing the game either.

So naturally, when a faulty process like this becomes big enough, someone is going to come along and point out the glaring holes in it, either maliciously or satirically.

That’s where Ballsack Sports comes in.

“It’s not malicious intent,” says Matt, a 24-year-old man from Akron, Ohio, who says he runs the Ballsack Sports account but didn’t want to identify himself further. “It’s more out of frustration seeing, okay, this is what the world wants.

“It was like a mockery almost, but I don’t have any malicious intent for any of my subjects.”

The provocatively named Twitter account, which masquerades as a news-breaking and quote-sharing resource, caught everyone’s attention in January when Philadelphia 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey namechecked it during a radio interview. The account had tweeted out a reported trade offer between the Golden State Warriors and the Sixers, which included the kind of graphic you might see from, say, an ESPN reporter or Bleacher Report, and not think twice about it.

“People were treating that like it’s a real thing,” said Morey at the time. “I’m imploring people not to get too attached to Ballsack Sports tweets and treat them seriously.”

While he might have thought he was delegitimizing the account, Morey’s comments ended up doing the opposite, launching Ballsack Sports into the consciousness of NBA Twitter and beyond.

“I was at McDonald’s with my mom when someone sent me that,” said Matt. “I made the most effortless 30-second mock-up trade with the Sixers and Warriors at 2 a.m. and got that out cause I knew I’d trigger some people and get some reactions. I didn’t expect it to blow up because I thought it was blatantly obviously ridiculous. But it did.

“To reach Daryl Morey and have him comment on Ballsack Sports, that was special. To reach someone of that magnitude. And someone that I definitely respect. To hear his frustrations with the media, that was funny.”

While that could have been a singular moment of Twitter madness, things went to the next level on February 1 when a Ballsack Sports tweet purporting to contain quotes from former NBA player Josh Smith led to a since-deleted post on Outkick, which then was syndicated at Outkick owner Fox News with a headline of “Former NBA player Josh Smith says LeBron James wouldn’t have been able to dominate his era.”

The quote, which straddled the line between believability and absurdity, was gobbled up by the online sports media machine, which was exactly the point.

“That was deliberate in the sense that I always wanted to make a satirical quote of an “old head,” said Matt. “There’s always guys from the 80s and 90s saying if LeBron played in our era, he wouldn’t be the same. I felt like growing up the past few years there’s been some guys who played the same time as LeBron and I wanted to make a guy drafted after LeBron who kinda fizzled the past few years who might be under the radar. I was looking through NBA drafts to find a perfect player and I found one of my favorite players, Josh Smith.

“When Fox News picked that up and embedded my tweet into my article before taking it down, it felt like my account was being fulfilled in the sense of purpose. I think I was seeing some of my skepticism about journalism come true a little bit.”

That skepticism is at the heart of why Matt says he started Ballsack Sports. Like so many other people who dreamed a dream of a sports journalism career, he looked around one day and wondered, is this truly all there is?

“I aspired to be a journalist,” said Matt. “As I grew up, I kinda became a little bit turned off by it, seeing how it shifted from what I thought it was gonna be to clickbait, social media… not a lot of depth. Everyone wanted something that was quick, controversial, easy to consume.

“I wanted to start Ballsack Sports because I wanted to rile up as many people as possible under the most obscenely obvious satirical name. I thought I could do it. And so, I just kind of started making satirical quotes.”

It’s not just the fake quotes, however. That on its own doesn’t explain why NBA fans keep hearing about Ballsack Sports every couple of weeks. Plenty of people do that all day long on Twitter and go nowhere. Trade season is especially ripe with fake accounts tweeting out fake trades and people have become fairly good at sussing them out (with some exceptions). What the Ballsack Sports account seems to get “right” about the online sports news industrial complex, for better or worse, is the presentation of those quotes.

“I’ve been around NBA Twitter for a couple years now,” said Matt. “I’ve seen and read a lot of player interviews. I kinda see what people react most to and what they love to engage with most. I’m constantly gauging the temperature on certain topics, whether it’s Steph’s three-point shooting or whether it’s the Sixers trade rumors. I see how the fanbase is reacting. And then I’ll try to find that perfect sweet spot whether it’s a player quote or a rumor. What would elicit the most reaction if it was real and came to fruition today?

“So I really search for that perfect news that people want to hear or don’t want to hear. And I think that’s why it’s been successful with the engagement I’ve gotten.”

You can look at what the Twitter account is doing and see it simply as a troll doing what trolls do, no different from the political memes of Facebook or a YouTube video full of misinformation. But under another light, there’s a case to be made that Ballsack Sports is the online sports news world’s version of Birds Aren’t Real, the parody social movement that mocks conspiracy theories that have proliferated on the internet.

Using the same language, visuals, and tactics as dangerous conspiracy theories, Birds Aren’t Real comments on their absurdity as well as the internet’s role in fanning their flames. The movement’s followers know the game and happily play along, spreading the “truth” that birds are actually government-controlled robots.

Certainly, there’s a big difference between using straight-faced satire to de-fang QAnon and using that same tactic to take down people discussing a James Harden quote, but the elements are there.

“What I find amusing is, obviously, with the alias Ballsack Sports, there is that demographic that immediately sees the name and is able to pick up on it,” said Matt. “There’s also the flip side that doesn’t. And so when they play off each other, it’s kinda funny to watch them go.”

Just as BAR founder Peter McIndoe recently said that he wants to “make sure it doesn’t tip into where it could have a negative end result on the world,” Ballsack Sports’ creator has similar concerns about taking things too far.

“I don’t want to be, y’know, the guy that’s traced back to a misinformation spread for all the wrong reasons,” said Matt. “My ideal goal, if I’m being honest, is for it to just fizzle out and for people to just read their sources and shift away from taking everything at face value, especially on social media where everything can be spread with a click.

“That’s my end goal. To not get picked up by Fox News. To not get picked up by Sports Illustrated. I think there’s some websites that will deliberately pick me up to get that clickbait attention, but my end goal is to hopefully help stop what I’m doing.”

That sentiment is at odds with the perception that the Ballsack Sports “media empire” is growing. The Twitter account @RobBuchananFox created a stir on Wednesday with a fake quote attributed to Ballsack Sports, which the Ballsack Sports account then retweeted. When a number of verified accounts started engaging with that quote as legitimate, Twitter even included it in their trending topics as if it were real, until that was pointed out by Sopan Deb of The New York Times.

Between the Rob Buchanan account, which claims to be an NBA Insider associated with Ballsack Sports, and the proliferation of other Twitter accounts seemingly related to the original (including, sorry, Nutsack Network), it would appear that an expansion was imminent.

“That is a guy who was inspired by what I was doing and wanted to make his own account,” said Matt in regards to the Rob Buchanan account and others like it. “I’m just one man over here.”

That said, Matt did say that he is considering starting a YouTube channel. There’s also a merch store where people can buy Ballsack Sports-themed t-shirts, stickers, and masks. But even if Ballsack Sports does stick around, it’s possible that, like so many of us, it could end up becoming part of the machine it purports to poke fun at.

“Some guys might not want to hear this but I might become less…I don’t want to be making satirical quotes forever,” said Matt. “I don’t know how that would transition with the background it’s building right now but that would be really cool.”

Social media is fantastic at creating a push/pull that wears down your morality and forces you to choose between ethics and engagement. On one hand, Matt says that his ultimate goal “would be to interact with LeBron James or Kevin Durant,” which seems entirely plausible given that he’s already making in-roads with some in the NBA community. However, in his ideal scenario, it would be in some kind of legitimate media form instead of them responding to a fake quote he’d created on their behalf.

But in the meantime, the fake quote game has been lucrative, at least in terms of Twitter clout. Ballsack Sports has almost 64k followers and an army of winking acolytes happy to help spread made-up news in the hopes that another major news outlet will fall for it. And with every new incident where someone falls for a fake quote, the notoriety grows.

“I want to be doing something more productive,” said Matt, seemingly at odds with his online persona. “Not this.”

And yet, short of Twitter stepping in, there are no signs of Ballsack Sports stopping anytime soon. If outlets are going to keep falling for it, you might as well keep loading the gun so you can watch them shoot themselves in the foot, at least in theory.

Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of Ballsack Sports’ quick ascent is that it’s far from the first account of its kind. College football fans surely remember College Football Quotes, a Twitter account that did the exact same thing, purporting to share quotes from CFB players and coaches, all of which were demonstratively false. That account fizzled out quickly, however, perhaps because it was truly attempting to convince everyone it was legitimate, whereas Ballsack Sports is, well, called Ballsack Sports. It’s right there in the name, all you have to do is stop and look.

Whether Ballsack Sports’ true intention is to shine a spotlight on the lack of accountability in modern sports journalism, an attempt at gaining social media notoriety, or simply the machinations of your average Twitter troll, there’s something to be said for the fact that it continues to find a way to break through into the national sports conversation. And that should give us all pause.

“I want to be very transparent that we are not legitimate,” said Matt. “I don’t know if that isn’t clear.”

About Sean Keeley

Sean Keeley is the creator of the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and author of 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and many other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle. Send tips/comments/complaints to sean@thecomeback.com.