Social media boycott can unite support against sport’s culture of online abuse

By allowing anonymous users to abuse athletes without consequence, social media companies have become an accomplice to sport’s chastening soundtrack – this bank holiday boycott can help cut the cord

Tom Kershaw
Friday 30 April 2021 14:59 BST
Players take a knee in support of the No Room For Racism campaign
Players take a knee in support of the No Room For Racism campaign (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

At 3pm on Friday afternoon, the virtual circus paused mid-flight. Without fans in stadiums, social media has become football’s soundtrack, filling the vacuum with a cacophony of caps lock, emojis, well-cut clips and uncut reactions. For better or worse, this is the voice of sport and society, broadcast across 140 impulsive characters, providing a relentless feedback loop on every goal, refereeing decision, news titbit or intoxicating rumour.

In the coming years, researchers predict that we’ll reach a point of social media saturation, our arteries for consumption so clogged that opinion blurs into white noise. Already, it’s evident in how broadcasters salivate for Roy Keane’s next infuriated rant or how fan channels have evolved from shouting to throwing chairs against walls. The pursuit of a way to permeate the sound blanket and, with it, the descent towards new extremes, are endless. After all, every circus is constantly in search of a new trick.

The medium might have changed, but the answer is as time-worn as Lucky Strike advertising cigarettes as a blueprint to a slim figure in the 1920s. To gain attention, you have to pierce people’s emotions and, more often than not, their vulnerabilities. And the reason sport’s sound will cut out this weekend is because nothing pervades quite so apparently and perniciously on social media as personal abuse. It is the constant undercurrent, biting beneath the surface of every picture and post, steadily normalised but no less harmful, like the tar that gathers in the lung.

A study released by Manchester United on Friday revealed that the club’s players have been subjected to 3,300 instances of typically racist online abuse since September 2019. Some players, such as Thierry Henry and Reece James, have chosen to delete their accounts entirely while the number seeking counselling from the Professional Footballers’ Association has risen astronomically in recent years. Those statistics, of course, only scratch the surface of the thousands that go unreported; the constant torrent of sexism directed towards female athletes; the casual homophobia. Discrimination might be as old and ingrained as free speech and humanity itself, but what social media provides is access without recrimination. Online anonymity has become not so much a bridge but a stage on which the trolls dwell with free rein. 

Almost every sporting body has now united in joining the boycott, even if some fairly believe silence is less powerful than speaking out or fear the movement will be hijacked by banal corporate bandwagoning. It may do nothing to dissuade the perpetrators, nor is its impact likely to change anything immediately due to social media’s irrepressible algorithms and infinite scroll. But there can be hope, at least, that these small droplets of support and pressure can eventually form a tide that brings real action from social media companies to hold users responsible. “It’s not enough, because we go silent for four days, which is part of it, because you are taking away the social media influence, but I think you can have a voice too,” Manchester United Women head coach Casey Stoney said on Thursday.

“Like I said on my social media, is that the behaviours and values [the social media companies] align to? If it isn’t, do something about it. Because they’re the only people that can do something. The more people that boycott, if millions and millions and millions were to boycott, when it starts hitting their pockets, they might do something about it.”

Those social platforms will inevitably distance themselves from the criticism and absolve themselves of blame. The real people behind the anonymous usernames will not have had their opinions altered and will find other means of extolling their hatred. The underlying problem will still exist. That does not change the fact that if they are finally to act, they will at least put a cork in so much of the vitriol. By being a vehicle, they are also an accomplice.

The boycott may yet prove ineffective, as many online so often do, but sport’s silence should not be mistaken as a means of turning the other cheek. Its soundtrack has become increasingly married to a culture of online abuse and is only worsening. Let’s see what can be achieved by cutting the cord.

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