Ian Herbert: Sports abuse on Twitter is hitting record highs but rather than confront the trolls we must starve them of the publicity they crave
They all seemed to have found some cachet when their messages were packaged up for a football website
It says everything about the casual nature of the vitriol dished out on Twitter that the doctored image of Theo Walcott being carried from the field during Arsenal's FA Cup third-round win over Tottenham Hotspur passed almost without comment. Walcott's 2-0 gesture to the Tottenham supporters, issued as he sat on the stretcher last month, was cropped to reveal only Walcott's left hand making a zero, with accompanying text, directed at Spurs fans, which asked: "How many Jews survived the gas chambers at Auschwitz?"
We could dismiss this as the abominable work of a social misfit if the propagator of the message – and I won't grant him the publicity he craves – was howling at the wind. But the image was retweeted by others, again and again. Then he found partners in his anti-Semitic abuse, busily putting their own imaginations to work on similar messages. And they all seemed to have found themselves a form of cachet when the messages were screenshot and packaged up as a story for one of the myriad football websites for which hits and page impressions are their lifeblood. Perversely, this most abysmal "story" earned itself 71 "likes" and 28 retweets. And here's the reason it was up there on a football website in the first place: for those who hover on it for a few seconds, a pop-up advert appears in which a leading high-street bank invites you to switch current accounts. One shocking piece of prejudice and a commercial win-win for many, you might say.
The Walcott tweet is one of several incidents which created statistical spikes in the number of discrimination reports received during the course of this football season by Kick It Out. The anti-discrimination organisation revealed last week that it has encountered a 43 per cent increase in such abuse being posted on social media.
Kick It Out declined to reveal the numbers of abuse cases this equates to, but the disclosure would certainly have triggered more attention than it did if we were not becoming so immune to such abuse – delivered from fan to fan, or from fan to competitor in the case of athletes like Beth Tweddle, Tom Daley and British speed skater Elise Christie at the weekend. There was hardly a flinch late on Saturday when Christie revealed that she had been on the receiving end of such a degree of abuse, after her disqualification in the 500m final at Sochi, that she had been forced to take down her Twitter account. It somehow seemed to be in the natural order of things.
Stan Collymore followed a similar course last month after his suggestion that Liverpool's Luis Suarez had deliberately dived to win a penalty against Aston Villa created another of the Kick It Out spikes. Collymore demanded that Twitter do more to preserve the right of individuals who want to have their say without being subjected to a tide of racism from those who are protected by digital anonymity.
Collymore was right. Twitter can do more. The British Olympic Association's director of communications, Darryl Seibel, observed yesterday that it was "worrying to see just how easy it is for individuals to use social media as a vehicle to bully and harass people". Many of those who are reporting this abuse to Kick It Out are doing so by including the California-based organisation's own handle, in the belief that it will alert Twitter to the seriousness of the problem. Generally, it does not seem to. You do wonder how long those in elite sport will want to maintain a presence in such an environment. In a world where journalists' access to footballers is more limited than ever, there's an irony about the minority of the maladjusted being free to abuse them at will.
For all that, Twitter cannot function while also being held liable for every word that appears on its site. A medium which gives a voice to those who previously had none – the excluded, the powerless, the desperate, the argumentative and the purveyors of gossip – will, by definition, catch the abusive and the unacceptable in its dragnets. That is why we have a part to play. The strategy of retweeting abuse, as Collymore has done, has not shamed many perpetrators in the way that some think it would. Instead, it seems to be providing the abusers with a certain validation – schoolyard-type bragging rights about who managed to get some piece of abuse up in lights.
It is not all that surprising, perhaps, given that teenagers are featuring in a number of the social media abuse cases Kick It Out is picking up. A 15-year-old from Bedfordshire received a police warning for one racist message. A 16-year-old issued an apology to the recipient of another message. When I retweeted the message in which a supporter wished upon referee Mark Halsey the return of his critical illness after he had the temerity to award a questionable decision last year, it seemed to fan the flames.
Cutting off the attention these abusers thrive on is the starting point. Blocking out the noise; restricting it to an empty room in which the trolls' hate-filled invective is ignored. We should keep them off our websites, collect no money from their activities, hold up to ridicule those who seek to do so. That would represent a big step to preserving a realm of social media which has delivered justice, change and revolution and within which, as followers of sport, we deserve better.
Pan for gold the Yarnold way and find some other winners
It was the arbitrary way that skeleton gold medallist Lizzy Yarnold was set on her way in the sport which was the most extraordinary part of her success last week. She turns up at a UK Sport talent-spotting day in Bath, wanting to try out modern pentathlon, but gets a letter instead offering her a skeleton trial, with a DVD enclosed showing Shelley Rudman winning her silver in 2006. And that was pretty much that. The work ethic and cerebral power which Yarnold carries – enabling her to recite every inch of the Sanki track, turn by turn, by heart – hints that she could have won gold at anything.
The significance of those same powers of visualisation are a powerful part of The New Yorker's outstanding recent story of endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who could "remember the exact time, to the second, of a swim [she] did 20 years ago".
The money follows the medals in Olympic sport, which is why British basketball is fading and skeleton is arriving. But the chance find of Yarnold suggests that no UK Sport strategy can be better than throwing lots of money at talent-spotting. There's no telling how many more there might be like Yarnold, enrolled on the wrong list.
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