top of page
  • Writer's pictureMatt Himsworth

Hatred Online … What can we do? What can players do?

Social media creates unnatural and unhealthy mental health pressures on young sportsmen and women. From the extremes of racist abuses, threats and lies to the numb everyday negativity that permeates online dialogue.

Below, following a roundtable we hosted with those working within player care, we set out some of our conclusions on what social media companies should do and, perhaps more importantly, what players, and those supporting them, can do.

1. The widespread nature of the problem

There is a danger in thinking of hatred online as being categorised by the racist abuse that accompanies so many of the Replies to high profile players such as Raheem Sterling and Mohammed Salah on Twitter and Instagram but hatred exists at all levels of sport.

We gave the example of a League One football player who was effectively driven off Twitter following a fan “pile on” after he was videoed out partying with an opposition team. The glee with which fans heralded the young player’s decision to delete his Twitter account is symptomatic of an online environment that bears resemblance to the medieval system of tarring and feathering.

2. The mental well-being impact

The real-life impact of social media abuse described by Granit Xhaka recently is all too typical. The constant abuse impacts not only him but his family which, in turn, understandably can impact performance on the pitch.

There is no escape for players. Fraser Franks relayed an anecdote from Martin Keown, who would actively seek out the Sunday papers and review the match reviews and the marks out of 10 he had been awarded during the 1980s and 90s. As the internet developed players would seek out Fans Forums. Now, the criticism comes right to their door when their usernames are tagged on social media.

Fraser went on to explain that, during his playing career, his mum and his wife would check social media after a game to see how things had gone. The impact and concern engendered in them when fans criticised and mocked him was significant.

Troy Deeney recently made public statements, in the face of online racism, to say that he had disabled the ability for Instagram users to leave comments on his page. His concern was not for himself but for young people reading his posts and the comments and, particularly, for his young family. The impact clearly goes beyond the individual players but goes further to their support networks and into the wider sports fraternity.

3. Social Media company policies versus the criminal law

An analysis of what Twitter and Instagram’s policies say is remarkable. Prejudicial language on its own, it would seem, is not enough. There needs to be threats within the hate for action to be taken. We showed an example during the roundtable of shocking racism directed at a football player which was deemed by Instagram to not breach its rules.

These rules do not compare favourably to the criminal law which is relatively draconian. It is a criminal offence to send messages which are “grossly offensive” or “indecent, obscene or menacing”. It is even a criminal offence to seek to cause “needless anxiety” by a message which the sender “knows to be false”.

This Act, which became law a month before even MySpace launched, perfectly sums up the behaviours that are causing so many young people mental health harms online today.

4. What Social Media companies should do?

We think it is helpful to compare social media to any other commercial enterprise that serves consumers.

If you attend a sports event, the cinema or an entertainment complex and behave in a way that is socially unacceptable and spoils the enjoyment others, then you can expect to be ejected.

Wembley’s rules (for example) are clear:

Social media companies should not operate any differently.

Social media companies could all but end hatred online by introducing proper identity verification processes. They are reluctant to do so because the commercial impact on them would be huge. Their user numbers would be dramatically reduced, the processes they need to bring in would be onerous and all of this would significantly impact their bottom line.

The impact social media has on society – it is a medium which wins and loses elections – means that we believe these companies have a social responsibility to take these measures no matter the cost. We are pessimistic though. It is hugely helpful that sporting bodies continue to fight the good fight and sport can have a positive influence.

Beyond verification processes, we take the view that they should:

  • Introduce a zero tolerance policy on anything that breaches the criminal law in the country the user is operating in. Anything which breaches the UK criminal law should, on any sensible analysis, result in an immediate suspension of a social media account. Ideally, they would go further – conduct which is bullying, socially unacceptable and spoils the enjoyment of others should, like in any other commercial environment, result in expulsion

  • Provide better cooperation with the authorities – a police liaison to allow for the swift provision of identifying of persons behind accounts that are dangerous

  • Proper monitoring of content. We have seen the worst of social media and this includes extreme violence, racism, hate, criminal threats and harassment. Social media companies will often delete this content but only after it has been reported. Social media companies should monitor, delete and suspend.

5. Enforcing the law

One major difficulty is a lack of police resourcing for online crimes. Some clubs and organisations have developed a strong relationship with local police forces which increases investigation and prosecution of online offences, however, resourcing will often be an issue.

Jessica Alden was able to talk the room through two examples of when apparently anonymous trolls were identified because of the lack of care they had taken to hide their identities fully. One such troll often spoke about a restaurant he frequented, which allowed Jess to cross-refer the restaurant’s Facebook page, find the perpetrator’s own Facebook page and cross-compare reported incidents and photographs. This type of information can give the police enough information to ease their own investigation and move swiftly on towards prosecution.

Where police resources are not available and detective work is not enough it is possible to apply to court to reveal what information the social media company has on the perpetrator. Similar court orders have been obtained in the UK against Facebook (who own Instagram) and Twitter.

These Apps have a lot of identifying information about us (and therefore about the trolls):

It might be, though, that an IP address is the best information available which, on its own, would not be enough. That therefore means that a second application to court (against the Wifi provider of the IP address) is necessary. Once this has been obtained, unless the perpetrator has only used public Wifi systems, he or she should be identified.

The court order can only be obtained by the person whose legal rights have been impacted. This means that the player him/herself needs to bring the claim. Though clubs and organisations can take charge of the process. It is clearly unsatisfactory that players will need to go through this level of resource and time to deal with someone who is abusing them.

6. Criminal conduct – what should players do?

It is crucial that players feel supported – whether by their club, players’ union, governing body, agent, charitable organisations or anyone else who has their best interests at heart.

That is why number one on our list is “talk”.

  • Talk

  • Don’t engage – don’t ever reply to someone harassing, threatening or otherwise menacing you

  • Take a screenshot and gather whatever evidence you have about the messages you have received and about the person sending them

  • Mute or Block the person so that he or she cannot contact you ever again

  • Report – to whichever person or organisation you feel supported by

7. The everyday negativity – what should players do?

The everyday impact of social media is significant and is artificially impacting the way that young sportsmen and women see the world … and themselves. Fraser Franks spoke from a player’s perspective: post-game changing rooms are a sea of young men seeking validation of their performances through their smartphones – furiously Liking and ReTweeting positive comments after a good game and drowning in despair when they’ve played poorly.

A key stage of education and nurturing a robust culture is to help them understand the artificiality of online debate. Social media is life through the looking glass. Online commentators often haven’t been to the game, have clouded views, are not experienced or knowledgeable or simply have an agenda. Added to this – we are never more than one Tweet away from a distortion, a half-truth or a downright lie. Showing players how easily social media is distorted is a key factor in helping them to treat it for what it is (or should be) – it is an outlet (for their commercial sporting purposes) and shouldn’t be seen as an overwhelming inlet.

The Dele Alli hoax Tweet is a classic of its genre and helps players to understand social media artificiality.

If a player treats his or her social media as an inlet then he / she will be relying on unreliable and disjointed information to understand the view the world has on him / her. At the roundtable we used the juxtaposition of a keyboard warrior telling Liverpool FC captain “your [sic] sh*t” versus another Twitter user telling him that he is a “genius”. If Jordan was looking to find the truth amongst that commentary he will be wasting hours of his life.

Dispelling internet myths and showing players how social media really works and then giving them mechanisms they can use to cope with the negative impact that inevitably comes, gives them the reason, knowledge and excuse to follow these core coping mechanisms:

  • Understand the artificiality and put it all to one side

  • Take yourself offline and digital detox – remove the App from your phone for a period

  • Mute certain words, phrases or accounts

  • Mute or Block anyone who directs negativity at you

  • Close your DMs, don’t read all your comments and turn off comments on Instagram

  • Let someone else take control of the account for a period … or forever

bottom of page