Football’s relationship with social media can be distilled into one two-hour period in April 2011. One Monday morning, then-Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson signed up to Twitter and was welcomed by his club captain Rio Ferdinand: ‘We have a new member from the Man utd crew… @dgibbo28 has joined twitterverse show him some love tweeps!’
Within two hours, Gibson’s account had been deactivated after a stream of abusive messages about his ability and recent performances. ‘@dgibbo28 hasn’t tweeted yet,’ one user noted. ‘Seems somewhat fitting after the countless anonymous performances we’ve seen from the ‘footballer’.’ ‘The team do all hard work keeping possession then u hit row Z every fuckin time!!’ said another. Nothing quite like feeling the warm embrace of your adoring public.
Twitter’s original intention was to create a democracy of opinion, to give every user an equal voice. Celebrities, including sports stars, could feel closer to their fans without actually having to get closer to their fans.
What it actually established, helped by wholly ineffective governance, was a dystopian experiment. Give enough social media users enough keyboards and they will eventually write the works of Shakespeare, but it’ll take eons because so many of them will be busy revealing themselves to be dickheads.
Anonymity is the crucial flaw. Ask a group of 100 people if they would steal and most would be inclined to say no. Ask a group of 100 people if they would steal if it was guaranteed that nobody would find out and a few more might say yes. Put those 100 people in that second scenario and more would steal than had previously admitted that they would. ‘Boys will be boys’ used to be the phrase to dilute guilt for immoral actions. Let’s update it for social media: Twats will be twats.
On Monday evening, Paul Pogba missed a penalty for Manchester United and subsequently suffered horrific racial abuse on Twitter. Last week, Tammy Abraham missed a penalty for Chelsea and the same occurred. This weekend, Yakou Meite missed a penalty for Reading and suffered the same abuse. There were four cases of racist abuse on the EFL’s opening weekend, involving James McClean (Stoke City), Theo Robinson (Southend United), Bambo Diaby (Barnsley) and the sister of Fulham’s Cyrus Christie. Each time, the player and/or club spoke out against the unacceptable actions of supposed football supporters.
In some way this is a problem of football’s own making. By welcoming such rapid commercialisation, football actively persuaded people that this was A Very Serious Business. When you persuade people to take something more seriously, don’t be surprised when they react angrily when things go wrong. But do not allow that to absolve those guilty of any blame. Most people love football and their club immovably without resorting to moronic abuse. You might have told those 100 people they would get away with the crime; that does not alter the immorality of the act.
The ‘oxygen of publicity’ argument insists that by highlighting such abhorrent behaviour, you risk legitimising it. That certainly seems to be the default position of Twitter, whose policy has long been to stick their fingers in their ears and hum along to Everything’s Gonna Be Alright while the platform allows hate to fester within its boundaries.
But that’s not good enough here, not when crimes are being committed and the worst the perpetrator suffers is their account being suspended. If a Twitter user has the gumption and intent to racially abuse a high-profile footballer, they can probably work out how to create a new anonymous account. Suspending them is the equivalent of combating theft purely with a sign asking the 100 people not to steal; it will only deter those who had no intention to do so in the first place.
At this juncture, it’s relevant to ask why footballers bother at all. Twitter started off as a fresh medium in which players could offer genuine humour and insight into their personalities, but clubs soon offered social media guidance with the golden rule ‘be as mundane as possible’. The extremes of the spectrum now range from ‘Onwards and upwards’ after a painful defeat to ‘Great result but we must keep it up’ after handsome victory. Most of the tweets are written by social media executives, but the brutal backlash must still hurt. Is it really worth it?
The latest incidents provoked England women’s manager Phil Neville to call for a six-month boycott, and there may be something in that. But would it change behaviour, or merely persuade the trolls that their attempts to gain notoriety have worked? They want a reaction, and get one. These people are unlikely to leave social media because players aren’t there, and a temporary absence may just bring further abuse when they return. It also punishes the majority for the actions of the minority. That might be appropriate if the majority could weed out bad behaviour themselves, but they remain helpless while the platform itself wields all the power.
Harry Maguire’s suggestion of ID verification also comes with its downsides. It may well help to stamp out some matters of individual abuse, but if there is one thing we have learned from the cultural and political shift over the last decade – I’ll let you go off and watch The Great Hack at this point – it is that giving more of our information to social media giants brings with it inherent risk.
Instead, there must be a concerted attempt from high-profile clubs and governing bodies to enter discourse with Twitter and improve their governance. In that respect the threat of boycott can be powerful. Were Manchester United to stress that they had the buy-in of other elite clubs to permanently leave the platform as a form of protest and followed through on that promise, Twitter’s PR would indeed take a hit. Social media giants have not been persuaded on grounds of decency, so hitting them in the pocket is the only likely route to change.
But this cannot be an empty threat. Having started the conversation this week, it must be continued and explored. And are the clubs really prepared to forego the benefits they receive from social media presence?
Football reflects society. Social media reflects society. Racism has become normalised because it has been allowed to fester and be championed by high-profile politicians and leaders. This is a battle that goes far beyond sport, and one that we are losing.
But football can, must, play a role. Almost nothing is as universally loved as football, so absolving itself of any part in the restorative process would be an abdication of responsibility. For so long football has insisted that it wants to help eradicate discrimination. Now it has a foothold, a genuine chance to lobby for effective change. That chance must not be missed.