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Unplugged: The dark side of football social media


Whilst the article below addresses social media abuse in football, I think an important distinction has to be made between abuse and criticism. The latter, made in the public domain, whether it is a strongly held view or one that is an unpopular opinion, is underpinned by freedom of speech. The former, on the other hand, when directly sent to players through various channels on social media is what is addressed below.

Imagine the situation. You’ve had an underwhelming day at work and you’ve made a few mistakes. You might have missed a deadline, said something out of turn or completed a poor piece of work. We’ve all had them. Maybe more than once.

You then go on your social media account to see hundreds or even thousands of people hurling abuse at you, claiming you’re not qualified to work at your company, questioning your attitude, your ability or even bring your other loved ones into the equation for further abuse. Sounds insane, right?

Well if you’re a professional footballer, this situation is a weekly and sometimes daily occurrence.

After the social media abuse that some Town players have received over the course of our Premier League dream season, I felt obligated to write this piece. The likes of Steve Mounié, Scott Malone, Jonas Lossl, Zanka and Phil Billing have received some type of abuse to varying degrees over the last few months which have been detrimental to our togetherness and some people need a collective time-out from their phones to realise the impact their words can have. I hope this piece is seen by some of the players so they know we as fans are trying to rectify this behaviour and their performances are valued just as much as they were at the start of the season.   

In this technologically advancing and digitized age that we are currently living in, the emergence of ‘social media’ platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have created new bridges between the football fan and the professional player.

Players can instantly create content that engages with their fans and helps them feel more connected to the people who pull on their treasured jerseys week in, week out. This personalisation has ensured that after each game, players can show their appreciation to their respective supporters in helping them achieve a valuable win, a hard-fought draw or an unfortunate defeat.

Fans can now send tweets directly to players, complimenting their performance, thanking them for signing an autograph or take a picture or for showing up at their child’s school to give a motivational talk.

In addition, like most of us who use social media, it can also give an insight into their lives outside of football, letting us see how they spend time with their families, their friends or their interests and hobbies when they’re not kicking a ball around for ninety minutes.

For better or worse, the illusion of the mysterious footballer appears to have been shattered after the start of the 21st century.

However, there is a dark side to this societal trend which I will elaborate on.

What happens when things go wrong? It can happen to any player at any club.

You go on a 7-game losing streak, you lose to your local rivals in a crunch game, your club gets relegated, one of your team-mates is caught out in a compromising photo outside a nightclub, your manager says something outrageous about a fellow manager.

Any one of these situations could cause a player to receive untold amounts of abuse on his social media profiles; threats could be made against him and his family, accusations launched at him laced with needle, vitriol and obscene language from nameless social media accounts.

The abuse doesn’t just come from opposition fans either, it could come from his own ‘supporters’ as well.

As I’m writing this, I must also qualify my use of the pronoun ‘he’ as this is a phenomenon largely absent from the women’s game. This is due to a variety of factors but most notably, the absence of tribalism and localised historical rivalry between different teams over the course of sometimes 50-100 years plays a part.

Another important factor to note is that an angry man or group of men are stereotypically more likely to go chuck a brick through a players house, attack him whilst leaving the training ground or shout abuse at him whilst he walks his dog through the park than a group of women.

The biggest question is, why is this happening?

Firstly, this is not a trend confined just to football. As our echo-chambers widen and our capacity for civil disagreement erodes, our public discourse is awash with conflict that has schism’d across class, political, racial and social lines.

The rise of ‘Trumpism’ and the EU Referendum created lengthy narratives that engulfed people’s lives and caused would-be normal people to go to war with each other. Some of those people haven’t returned to normality yet.

Secondly, the growth of the professional game and the obscene amounts of money that has poured into it from television deals it could be argued has had a corrosive impact on fans expectations. If you are a supporter of a so-called ‘top 6’ club, you could be paying anything from £30-£100 for a match-day ticket to watch your team. Where once outrage was selectively reserved for moments of apocalyptic catastrophe, now they are regular occurrences.

They could be triggered when a poor performance takes place or if someone is merely upset at an unfortunate defeat. The tribalism of football if anything, has increased in the last twenty years rather than subsided.

Some fans will only watch England games if players from their respective club are playing, causing national pride to be replaced by factional bitterness.

The violence in football overall might have reduced to single digit flash-points on rare occasions throughout the season as opposed to a weekly occurrence across the country but it doesn’t mean people are making friends. The battle has gone online with supporters from different clubs hurling digital insults across their Wi-Fi signals.

Hyperbolised expectations from fans based on an increased financial input when their wage packets have stayed the same or stagnated creates a powder keg of frustration waiting to go off time and time again.

We have seen infamous examples of top-level players receiving vile and disgusting abuse from their own fans or other cretinous individuals. Bournemouth midfielder Harry Arter was abused over the premature death of his baby daughter Renee last year, ironically by another footballer who played for a non-league team. I feel reluctant to bring up examples like this as I don’t want to give these people oxygen but they need exposing in order for the rest of us to grow and learn that this kind of abhorrent behaviour is not acceptable in any walk of life. These people would never display this behaviour in the work-place or at home, so why do they do it over social media?

However, the volcanic explosion of anger isn’t just confined to fans of the top division. Football fans from all walks of life and all manner of different clubs are guilty of engaging in this bottom-feeding behaviour.

How can I patronisingly say that abuse of players is only confined to entitled, glory-hunting fans of Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal? I would be guilty of the same class-based thinking that I had lamented previously. If you’re a fan of Kidderminster or Barcelona, you’re equally as susceptible.

The only difference is that for those who are mentally disturbed enough to turn words against players into actions, the central-midfielder who plays for Kidderminster or Nuneaton has less protection, less money to spend on private security and chauffeurs and might have a part-time job that he uses to supplement his football career.

I also cannot categorically say myself I have never once become embroiled in the very thing I am railing against.

Pre-David Wagner and when I first joined Twitter, in the Championship, the team generally was below par. Plagued by poor performances, capitulations to top-end teams and lacking direction or purpose from the manager/s, we chopped and changed head-coach with similar outcomes and the playing squad was bloated with under-performing players and a dressing-room culture that seemed problematic at best.

Whilst I certainly never tagged any player individually in a tweet designed to cause verbal harm, I clearly remember using words like “gutless” and “spineless” when describing certain team performances on a few occasions on my own Twitter page. I hope I’ve deleted those tweets and saved myself future embarrassment.

I’ve probably criticised players maybe too harshly at times too. It can happen to the best of us and the excuse of youthful indiscretion is not an adequate excuse for improper behaviour.

What I’ve emphasised to myself when I’ve been annoyed at a poor team performance is that these players are human beings. They make mistakes just like the countless ones I have made over the course of my life.

The next time you feel the urge to insult a player on social media, take a step back, sleep on it and then realise that you have better things to do with your life.

You are a better person than to engage in that type of behaviour and as a football supporter, your job is to help your players perform better, not drag them down.

If you want to make one of your players feel better, send them a positive message when they’ve played well or even if they haven’t, you never know the effect it might have on helping them play well the following week.