It’s a subject that seems to rear its ugly head more often than anyone would wish. Unfortunately, however, I feel the need to again address the unpleasant issue of online abuse and how it affects those of us who choose to share our thoughts publicly.
Football is a passionate, tribal game. People pick their side or have it foist upon them – the result of a bond between family and club that has gone back generations. As a result, any comment or opinion that goes against a supporter’s club takes on extra significance. They see it as a slight on them as a person and, as such, become extremely offended almost instantly.
In days gone by, that offence was often felt and discarded before anything came of it. Remarks were shouted over barricades at a stadium, or as you walked past each other down the street, forgotten by the time you had caught your supporters’ bus home.
With the modern age, however, has come the wonder of social media. It allows a level of engagement between players, clubs and supporters never before seen. Unfortunately, though, it has unearthed something much darker. Often dubbed ‘keyboard warriors’, there is a specific type of football fan who sees their Twitter, Facebook or Instagram as a personal soapbox. They can voice any opinion they wish, no matter how distasteful or unsavoury and, more disturbingly, can target it towards individuals.
Twitter is my preferred choice of social media these days. It’s an excellent source of news and allows people to share media in a way that, for me at least, is a lot easier and more palatable than most other platforms. But Twitter is also, in my opinion, the most vicious of arenas at times.
This was no more evident than in the case of the abuse suffered by Guardian writer Amy Lawrence this past week. It all started with this tweet.
To any reasonable minded person, this is completely harmless. Amy, a well-known Arsenal fan, football expert and journalist, will have been well aware of the context of the banner. The words adorning it are actually lyrics from a song City fans are renowned for singing. She no doubt knew that and chose to poke a little good-natured fun at City, in light of their season which, though far from a disaster, hardly confirms their status as anything near the best team in the world.
The response she got, however, was far from good-natured. She was subjected to hours of personal and, in many cases, sexist abuse that saw her confirm later that evening that she would be taking a break from the social media platform. “Take care, people who can share opinions nicely,” she said in her final tweet, “Less said about the rest, the better. Over and out.”
And with that tweet, Twitter lost itself another engaging, enthralling and highly entertaining member of the footballing community. Another skilled professional forced into silence by ignorant imbeciles who are too thick to take opinions and jokes for exactly what they are.
Seeing the treatment of Amy that afternoon was something I found extremely difficult to take. As an aspiring football writer myself, Amy’s work has and continues to be a great inspiration to me. To see her so negatively affected by people I thought she would think nothing of shocked me. But what it did prove was this – we’re all human. No matter how accomplished or successful we are, abuse of any kind can get us down.
Unfortunately, it’s something that affects football writers of all levels. I, and many of the friends I have made in the blogging world, have suffered the same. Despite not being paid for what we do, and doing it purely for our love of writing and football, people feel it appropriate to berate us on an intensely personal level just because we choose to share our thoughts with the world.
Like Amy, I’m a female football writer. I’m reluctant to say the abuse I have received as a woman in this sphere is worse than that experienced by my male counterparts, but I will say this – being female does give your detractors that little something extra to use as ammunition against you. I remember back in 2014 when one of my blogs, ironically discussing Man City, went semi-viral. It received over 4,000 hits in 24 hours and my Twitter mentions exploded. I expected some sort of backlash, to be fair. I had had the temerity to suggest Paul Pogba transferring to the Etihad would be a disappointment, confirmation that footballers were more motivated by money than prestige.
I expected the backlash to focus on the opinion I expressed. I expected people to tell me I was wrong and naive to think money wasn’t a major factor for most transfers in the modern game. While I did get that, there was a whole other side to the backlash I didn’t expect. Photos from personal social media profiles were dragged up. My looks, my weight and my general ‘woman’-ness were deemed fair play for comment. I couldn’t believe it but, three years down the line, it’s something I now know I was naive not to expect.
Thankfully, nowadays, I am working with sites whose readers are somewhat more considered in their responses. They don’t always agree with what I say but, in telling me so, they do it constructively. Conversation ensues and not a single insult is thrown. It’s actually the part of doing this blogging thing that I love most – not the writing, but the engagement from readers in the aftermath.
That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to see the ugly side of football supporters on social media on a regular basis. While I continue to write, many friends have either stopped having a presence on any social platform or, in extreme cases, stopped all together.
With that in mind, the message I want to get across is for anyone still reading this who has directed abuse at a writer, footballer, celebrity or, indeed, fellow human being on Twitter. Please, before you hit return on your keyboard, just THINK about what you’re saying. Would you say it to the person’s face on the street? Are you genuinely that nasty of a person, or has sitting behind your computer screen given you a false sense of invincibility? If you are able to have the insight to choose, I’d suggest you’re probably too intelligent to engage in such childish behaviour.
If there’s any one thing to remember, it’s this. Football is just a sport. Yes, it means so much to us that remembering that can be difficult but, really, it’s inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Let’s all appreciate the sport we love for what it is – a chance to escape the mundanities and stresses of everyday life. We get enough abuse from elsewhere in the world – let’s not bring it into the footballing one too.