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Sticks and Stones: Social Media abuse in Sport

Antonio Rudiger
Antonio Rüdiger is one of a number of athletes who have fallen victim to online abuse (Source: Brian Minkoff, London Pixels via Wikicommons media)

By Ben Lovell-Smith | Sport Editor

It has been known for some time that social media can become a cesspit, filled with trolls, abusers, discrimination and nastiness. In recent times this vial of hate seems to have been taken up a notch, particularly amongst the sporting corners of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The state of play

New accounts of abuse from prominent sporting names seems to have become a daily occurrence. Newcastle manager Steve Bruce as well as football referees Mike Dean and Ryan Atkin came out last week to reveal they had received death threats online. 

Whilst, defenders Axel Tuanzebe and Antonio Rüdiger became the most recent Premier League footballers to reveal that they had been the targets of racist online abuse. The discriminatory tone of abuse, usually racist or sexist, is common.

Football is certainly not the only guilty party. In the opening Six Nations weekend, Ireland fly half Billy Burns was subject to a torrent of online abuse following his error at the conclusion of the Wales vs Ireland match. Whilst, former England rugby women’s captain Maggie Alphonsi has spoken out in the Daily Telegraph about the sexist abuse she faced following her commentary appearance on ITV’s coverage of Italy vs France. 

Furthermore, a 2020 BBC Survey found that 30% of female British sports women had been trolled on social media – up 14% from 2015.

What has been done so far?

The argument surrounding facebook is that this abuse represents a wider societal issue and this may be true, racism in particular is not exclusive to social media, but should these organisations be doing more to protect users? Instagram announced last week that it will impose stricter penalties for online trolling. Individual Instagram accounts will now be deleted if found guilty of racist abuse. 

Whilst, police authorities have demonstrated the consequences of abusing social media privileges. This month a 35-year-old man was arrested and charged after posting an offensive social media message about the late Sir Captain Tom Moore, demonstrating the role that the legal system could come to play within this issue.

But should the issue be dealt with reform rather than punishment? One of the fascinating parts of abuse faced by Premier League footballers is the amount of young teens who are found guilty. In October, Wilfried Zaha faced racial abuse from a 12 year old boy. The boy subsequently took part in a reeducation programme led by ‘Kick it out’ and was reported to have regretted his actions. Thus underlining the role that education systems should burden within this matter. 

A change in attitude to the issue?

The government is also beginning to take hold of the issue, promising that it will start forcing social media companies to do more to prevent online abuse. Oliver Dowden – the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – tweeted; 

“We are going to change the law to make social media companies more accountable for what happens on their platforms and they can start showing their duty of care to players today by weeding out racist abuse now. Players must not be abused for doing their jobs, enough is enough.”

Whilst the FA announced following the case of Axel Tuanzebe, “Social media companies need to step up and take accountability and action to ban abusers from their platforms, gather evidence that can lead to prosecution and support making their platforms free from this type of abhorrent abuse.” 

Ultimately though, these companies can’t stop abuse at source, this expression of hatred is a societal issue and it is no doubt exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. Sports fans have been left at home frustrated, faced with no channel for emotion or expression but through their smartphone, where once they had the more private or consuming outlet of the pub or stadium environment to express their views less directly. 

The issue must be fought on a number of fronts, but the wheels of progress have begun to turn.

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