Social media boycott will only work if a week becomes forever

John Nicholson
Glen Kamara fist bumps Steven Gerrard

Swansea and Rangers are boycotting social media for a week in a respectable but futile protest. We must consider stopping using it completely


Swansea City and Rangers have suspended their use of social media as a protest against racist abuse and discrimination. It’s for a week and has been widely welcomed. Apart from anything else, it’ll be a relief for a lot of players who have no desire to interact with the public in this way, but somehow feel obliged to.

There are only so many times you can say, ‘Not good enough today. We go again on Tuesday,’ aren’t there? And since some employ what they call a ‘media team’, but which may just be their mate Banger who is “good with tech”, they may never even notice they’re not posting anything. Not everyone is on their Twitter timeline all the time, or taking photos of their new trainers for their Insta account.

It’s only human to think that something must be done in the name of all that is decent to try and stop the racist abuse, discrimination, sexism and just generally horrible social media behaviour. But if life has taught us anything it is that it’s only natural for some to abuse people too. And therein lies the problem: we are trying to change human behaviour.

So we should. We can’t easily give in to any of this and it’d be great to think that football could make a difference. But sadly it likely won’t make any at all. Football overrates itself and its own importance much of the time, which is ironic really because it actually is relatively important, just not as important as it thinks it is, but because it’s so wrapped up in itself, trapped in a self-feeding circle, that’s probably inevitable. Social media companies know this. It can do without football club accounts and probably won’t miss even the biggest.

For perspective, Rangers FC have 622,000 followers on Twitter, Swansea City one million. Taylor Swift has 88.7 million. Steven Gerrard has nine million followers on Instagram, while Justin Bieber is on 158 million. So if it’s a numbers game, football will definitely deprive the platforms of some custom but the sad fact is that the amount of traffic generated by this news will have helped offset that already. Compared to the big brands, they’re really a pebble in an almost impossibly big ocean.

This suspension of use is not a worthless gesture, far from it. But a week without official Rangers or the Swans postings will make no difference. Permanent removal of all football-related accounts might start to make an impression and as importantly it might inspire others in other sectors to do likewise. But will that happen? It also doesn’t seem likely. The week will pass, nothing will change and all clubs will return to using the platforms because communicating through these channels has become how clubs conduct their business.

Social media icons football

They’ve used them to side-step traditional newspapers and broadcast media very effectively, allowing them to fill the minds of the public with their own version of the truth and alternative facts. And it’s worked. They don’t want to give that up. The platforms know that. They also know that the real traffic doesn’t come from a football club, it comes from fans who are getting in each other’s faces all the time, regardless of whether the club is on the platform or not. And this is assuming the volume of engagement is crucial to them. It might not be.

Twitter protests that if it introduces a thorough account verification process it denies the rights of people to make anonymous protests against oppressive governments, among other reasons. And they’re right, it would. The question we have to answer is: is it worth more than the river of abuse towards thousands if not millions of people that supposed anonymity allows? Is that a price worth paying?

A good question to ask is this: if it didn’t exist, would the world be a worse place? Once we answer that, we get to the root of the matter.

It can be a force for good, nobody would deny that. It can be positive and open up new vistas. You can curate your timelines to try and ensure you get fed worthwhile stuff and not the evil slurry. It can garner likeminds and feed your imagination. Hell, it can even help sell t-shirts and who doesn’t want that?

It’d be a shame to give all that up, but that’s the choice we will have to make at some point. Stick with it and accept all the horrible negatives, or don’t. There pretty much isn’t any middle ground because asking the platforms to edit human behaviour is a task they are just not up to and are really not interested in on anything other than a PR level.

Some of the more extreme abusers do get arrested, convicted and sent to jail but only the ones who are persistent, careless or who want to be identified. The law could be strengthened and the police could enforce it more rigorously, at least in theory. But is the force big enough to do that, does it have the resources and are the jails big enough to hold all the offenders? It’d be nice if they did something more than they do, but is it the answer? No, it isn’t.

The idea, sometimes promulgated in favour of social media, is that it can be used to hold the powerful to account. But that is laughable. Politicians like Boris Johnson can lie and lie and lie and smirk while doing it, all with impunity. This post-truth dystopia has its roots in social media, is fed by it and is perpetuated by it.

So we can’t argue it is really holding anyone’s feet to the fire, at least not for long. Perhaps the most positive thing football withdrawing from social media for a week will do is make us all realise how little we need official club output. It will be easily ignored. Thierry Henry withdrew from Twitter recently, but can you say that has made any significant difference to you or to anyone else? There’s always something else to distract. This is the problem we face.

Taking football clubs off Twitter won’t get rid of the racist, the sexist, vile abusers. If it does anything it’ll just send them elsewhere. That’s not really any better, is it? It doesn’t seem fair that anyone can be as beastly to you as they want at any time of the day and you’re supposed to just suck it up, but that’s to misunderstand what these platforms are and what they’re set up to do.

Let’s not be naive. Despite protestations to the contrary, these are apps set up for and to encourage abuse, deception and delusion, as much as they are to encourage compliments for your cat video or to get in touch with an old partner and break up your marriage. We should not pretend otherwise.

If you can monetise hate, you have opened up a well of money that will never run dry. And that is precisely what they have done. So why would they want to stop the hate? They generate money from hate. They love hate but they just can’t say so. More profoundly still, take away our hate and what do we have? Maybe social media is just a mirror and maybe we don’t like what we see. That’s an uncomfortable thought.

Football’s absence can’t deprive Twitter of profits because it’s only made a profit once since it started and that was in 2019. It reported a net loss in 2020 of $1.14 billion and is predicting up to a $50 million loss for Q1 of 2021. That’s how mad this whole thing is. We’ve given so much worth and power to a company that can’t even regularly make as much profit as your local window cleaner.

Korey Smith and Jamal Lowe take a knee

And anyway, asking social media companies ‘to do something’ about all the racist abuse suggests that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can significantly control what they have unleashed. That they have the power. But do they?

Too much is being posted every second of every minute of every hour. They can’t say it’s out of control because they have to give the impression of being in charge, but when they rely almost wholly on censoring what has already been published and can’t stop it being uploaded, they obviously are. Any pretence otherwise is just PR and spin. “Tell us if you see anything horrible” is a pathetic customer care policy, not even worth the name.

You can never employ enough people to put their eyes on all the content; you can put in a word filter but you can abuse without using any ‘traditional’ insults and many of those words have a non-abusive context too, so controlling their use is almost impossible without a human looking at it.

But there are 9,281 Tweets being made every second. An average of 1.82 billion people log into Facebook daily. Five-hundred million people visit Instagram stories daily. Good grief, there are even 310 million monthly active users on LinkedIn! But Facebook just employs about 15,000 content moderators worldwide. So we can forget effective policing by the platforms. It won’t happen because it can’t. They can’t tell us “we’re swamped, we can’t keep up” because it looks very bad, but they are.

They won’t abandon the anonymity aspects of signing up for an account and even if they did, a way around it would be quickly found, probably using fake ID.

There’s only one way to end this and we all know what that is: stop using it.

Of course, no-one should have to change their life because of an abuser. No-one. But what if social media can’t or won’t stop it happening? We have to consider that possibility.

We can protest all we like, but if it makes little or no difference, and there’s no evidence it does yet, just as there’s no evidence taking a knee is changing behaviour or minds, we just have the one option open to us. And the great thing about that option is that it makes all the abuse go away.

Of course, no-one should have to. Of course, no-one should be racially abused, or abused in any other way. Of course, it should be stopped. Of course, we should try to stop it. Of course, we should protest and put as much pressure on as possible. These are givens.

But when all that has been said and done, and still it continues, then what? Stopping using them really is our only option. It’s a shame to lose all the good stuff, but, as the age-old parental saying goes, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Leave the hate to the haters and get on with life without it and without them. It’s not the worst idea.