Why online abuse of English footballers is a problem for all of us | Online abuse
English players do not need to be informed of the abuse they are receiving online. They have been talking about it publicly for years. In 2021, the problem came to a head, with the game’s governing bodies uniting behind gamers and repeatedly calling for tougher action, both from the government and, in particular, from tech companies.
What the Guardian’s research into player abuse during the current European Championship shows is how mundane it is. Analysis of thousands of posts revealed clear racist content of the kind that rightly grabbed the headlines when previously speaking to Premier League players. But it also revealed a lingering wave of anger targeting both the players and manager Gareth Southgate.
Football has called for tougher action on the former and is hoping for an education on the latter. Of the explicitly racist messages that were found, captured by Hope Not Hate at the time of the match before being forwarded to the Guardian for analysis, all were deleted from Twitter at the time of publication of the research. The speed at which this material is being removed from platforms remains a matter of controversy for gamers, however. Many observe a difference between the speed with which racist abuses are removed and the speed with which action is taken against material that infringes copyright. There is also another concern about the ability of users who create racist content to continue posting, either after serving a time-limited suspension or under a new account.
It should be noted that Twitter is not the only social media platform that has a visible problem with abusive content. Instagram, for example, has come under substantial criticism regarding the abuse players receive, especially in individual direct messages. Twitter, however, is where the live conversation takes place around events and offers insight into the nature of the hate gamers are subjected to.
In England’s first two games, against Croatia and Scotland, a number of tweets have attacked players for taking the knee. The posts weren’t about race, at least not explicitly, but they often attacked black players for what was a perceived association with Black Lives Matter. These messages show how football players can become lightning rods for broader societal issues.
Of the three matches, however, the most common type of message was simple: abusing a player (and manager) for their actions on the field of play. It’s probably something as old as the game itself. itself, but social media not only permanently captures the hate that might have vanished into the air, it can amplify it too.
This is where the question of education comes in. Under the banner “United Hope” a number of prominent footballers including England’s Marcus Rashford and Lauren James and Scotland’s Andy Robertson have lent their faces to a BT campaign. The goal of the campaign is to tackle “online hate” in its broadest sense and it calls for a series of short nudge-type measures to stop people from angry posting. These ideas include limiting time spent on social media, taking a break before posting, and in the words of Lucy Bronze, “imagine my grandmother reading everything I write”.
Such measures may seem a little insignificant in the face of multibillion dollar machines that seem to fuel a dynamic that often ends in hateful confrontations. But to read the messages addressed and concerning the English players, it is to see people reacting with anger in the moment. Showing them both the consequences of their messages (the impact it has on the people who receive them) and simple ways to prevent this from happening, are actions that could have a positive effect and should be better known.
There is a personal interest in footballers taking a stand, or kneeling, against hate online. There is nothing wrong with it. But it is also true that national sport receives enormous, probably disproportionate, national attention. That the problems that plague gambling mirror those that plague society as well, shouldn’t be surprising. What happens to English footballers happens on a smaller scale to many other people in the country and the processes by which they occur are also similar. Recognizing the abuse that footballers face and taking them seriously could have benefits for all of us.