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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower