There have been instances of suicides caused by online abuse as well as depression and anxiety because of so-called trolls. In terms of young people, they can be pressured in a way which teenagers never were when I was growing up. If you add in the easy access to questionable online material and the importance of mobile phones to youngsters, then the pressure for some can be quite relentless.
Equally depressing is the online racial abuse currently being suffered by footballers, celebrities, politicians, and others. There is now a move by football clubs and individuals to boycott social media platforms. In the media there is talk of a football-wide boycott of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to put the platforms under pressure to tackle this abuse head on. The biggest attention is on the Premier League and the reality is Premier League clubs and Premier League players make significant sums of money from social media sponsorship and marketing activity and I would be very surprised if there was any meaningful boycott by either.
Championship clubs earn far less from social media activity than Premier League clubs and are therefore more likely to boycott social media. Some black Swansea City players have been subjected to terrible racist abuse this season which led Swansea to becoming the first club to announce recently that they were coming off social media platforms. Quickly joining them were Birmingham City as well as Rangers in Scotland. Some of the worst abuse was reserved for Liverpool’s black players who were targeted after their Champions League defeat to Real Madrid. Thierry Henry has left social media because of the abuse he has been getting.
Nobody can deny that the intentions of clubs and players boycotting social media are well intentioned but will bans achieve the desired change, and will it stop the unacceptable levels of racial abuse? Any reasonable person of course hopes it would, but I have my doubts. The problem faced by the social media companies is that much of the abuse is sent from overseas accounts. They are traceable but the problem the social media companies face is effective enforcement action across multiple borders. Additionally, instigating checks on key words in multiple languages that are outlawed is complex.
One of the problems in football is that the governing bodies always go for what they think people want to hear so they condemn the social media companies, call on them to do more and provide all the right quotes and then disappear into the night with nothing fundamentally having changed. The benefits of social media to most people who use it correctly are then punished and the clubs and individuals suffer financially whilst those in society with prejudiced views go unpunished. It is a societal issue as much as it is a football issue.
It is thought the Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill, which will be brought before Parliament later this year, will threaten huge fines if companies fail to act quickly and protect its users. I hope this doesn’t mean fining clubs who are doing as much as they can to monitor, block and report online abuse towards their players and that would be grossly unfair.
Nobody would argue that the online abuse that causes young people to want to take their own life and online racial abuse must stop but make no mistake that getting to the point where you have a system of effective policing and prosecution is not going to be easy to achieve.
Peter Varney – Chairman, Integral Sports Management
Image – Getty Images.