For football players, coaches, and officials, the rise of social media has been both a blessing and a curse.
As a football player, if you do so well on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Emirates or Old Trafford Stadium, the whole Twitter will meltdown in your praise, so much so that even rival fans will take to their handles to hail you. Some folks will even go as far as comparing you to some of the greatest names to ever grace a football pitch.
Fast forward three days later, if you turn in a woeful performance in another match, the same folks who nicknamed you a demi-god on Twitter and Facebook just a while back will come back to roast you in fries of abuse. They will rain down insults and curses on you and make you wonder if you were ever good enough to play the game.
Having been on the receiving end of the love and hate that comes from social media, Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin summaries what it’s like for footballers on social media these days.
In an honest interview with the Times, the Spaniard opened up about how the online abuse affected him.
“Most of the abuse is online, but you hear it in the stadium too. People have called me ‘lesbian’ for growing my hair. There are other kinds of homophobic insults. I have learned to grow a thick skin, but it can affect you. Every now and again, you get a bit of self-doubt,” he said.
“When I first came into the ranks at Arsenal, the expectations were very low, so people were often impressed when I played well. But then, when I played badly, the stick got crazy. The worst was a year and a half ago. A lot of people say nice things, but it is natural to focus on the bad. For a while, I deleted the apps. Later, I decided to go back on. Twitter is a great source of information. Every day I am learning to deal with abuse in a better way.”
Over the years, many more footballers have been targeted, from Manchester United’s Paul Pogba to City’s Raheem Sterling, Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger to Swansea’s Yan Dhanda. In fact, almost every football player can claim to have been abused in a way or another by social media users.
However, recently, the abuse seems to have gotten a little bit uglier on social media.
What used to stop at the level of displeasure has now evolved into hateful speeches, angry rants, racism, discrimination and profiling, and most alarmingly, death threats.
Now, fans don’t just stop at the level of insulting players and officials via tweets or comments anymore. They’ve taken it up a notch by sending direct messages (DMs) of threats, sexism, and racism to players, coaches, staff, and officials of the beautiful game.
The most recent one came in the wake of Mike Dean’s decision to controversially send off the highly-impressive Tomas Soucek.
The Czech Republic international had been so instrumental for West Ham United all season, so when referee Mike Dean decided to give him his marching orders, he angered a lot of West Ham United fans in the process.
Many of them, displeased with his decision, which they believe led to their team losing valuable points, entered Mr. Dean’s Twitter DM to threaten him and his family.
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“It is inexcusable that Mike Dean and his family have received online abuse, including death threats, as a result of doing his job officiating at a Premier League match,” said Premier League chief executive Richard Masters in a statement sent to CNN.
“It is completely unacceptable that we are seeing abusive behavior aimed at players, managers, and match officials regularly on social media platforms.
“Mike and his family have our full support in reporting this to the police. This once again highlights the need for greater proactive intervention from social media companies to stop online abuse and identify offenders.”
This act raised serious eyebrows within the English football community, and at that point, the powers that be felt they’ve had enough of the abuse and hate coming off social media.
In the wake of that, the English football authorities decided to contact the owners of Twitter and Facebook, specifically requesting that swift actions be taken to protect its stakeholders (players, managers, staff, and officials) against the threats and abuse coming off their platforms.
In a letter published by the official handle of the Premier League on Twitter on Thursday 11 February 2021, 11:07 AM, UK time, it was revealed that English football bodies had come together to demand actions of social media companies.
This is what the letter read:
“The language used is debasing, often threatening and illegal. It causes distress to the recipients and the vast majority of people who abhor racism, sexism, and discrimination of any kind. “We have had many meetings with your executives over the years, but the reality is your platforms remain havens for abuse.
“Your inaction has created the belief in the minds of the anonymous perpetrators that they are beyond reach. The relentless flow of racist and discriminatory messages feeds on itself: the more it is tolerated by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, platforms with billions of users, the more it becomes normal accepted behavior.”
Summary of English Football Authorities’ request to Facebook and Twitter:
- Messages and posts should be filtered and blocked before being sent or posted if they contain racist or discriminatory material
- You should operate robust, transparent, and swift measures to take down abusive material if it does get into circulation
- All users should be subject to an improved verification process that (only if required by law enforcement) allows for accurate identification of the person behind the account. Steps should also be taken to stop a user that has sent abuse previously from re-registering an account
- Our platforms should actively and expeditiously assist the investigating authorities in identifying the originators of illegal, discriminatory material
The letter was signed by FA chief executive Mark Bullingham, his counterparts at the Premier League and the EFL, Richard Masters and Trevor Birch, the director of the women’s professional game Kelly Simmons, Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Gordon Taylor, League Managers Association chief executive Richard Bevan, referees’ chief Mike Riley and Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari.
It remains to be seen how these companies will respond to these demands. But prior to the requests from the English football bodies, Facebook-owned Instagram had already announced new measures, including the removal of accounts to prevent abusive messages on its platform and developing new controls to help reduce the abuse people see.
However, whether Facebook and Twitter will implement these new suggested policies is a completely different story. But I, for one, hope we never have to discuss this barbaric and absurd subject ever again.