Football has embraced the digital age. Supporters in all corners of the world have never had it so good, with footage freely available at the click of a button. Those who offer their feverish fandom have never felt more connected to the clubs they so passionately follow. However, there is a dark side to this modernisation of the game and football is facing a new and serious enemy in the shape of online abuse through social media.
Social media platforms allow supporters to digest an ever-flowing pipeline of content, as footballing institutions and the players who ply their trade for them provide almost unfettered access. It offers a snapshot into the day to day lives of the game’s biggest names and it is this which allows the fans to build a connection with their idols, even if they find themselves in a completely different time zone.
With so much content made available and the ability to connect with players, the relationship between football and its followers has arguably never been stronger and although that should be something to celebrate, it also has created something of an issue at the same time. Social media has become a fertile ground for online abuse and defeating this monster is the next battle that the game faces.
Reports of online abuse have enveloped football recentl and, with the social media giants slow to react, it seems as if those fuelled by hate are winning teh war. The ugly tentacles of such actions, are now extending to other facets of the game.
Take the treatment of referee Mike Dean for example. Although you may not agree with the way he portrays himself as the man in the middle, with the referee seemingly never far from controversy, he and his family do not deserve the treatment that they have recently suffered. It has been a tough few days for Dean.
After harshly sending off Jan Bednarek against Manchester United, a decision which was reversed on appeal, there was further controversy at Craven Cottage when he gave West Ham’s Tomas Soucek his marching orders for what looked like the most accidental of elbows. This decision wasn also overturned, having bee met with much umbrage from David Moyes and the rest of the footballing fraternity, adding extra embarrassment for Dean.
However, poor though the decsions may have been, they are no excuse for his family to receive death threats and such acts of cowardice only highlight the disease that is spreading throughout social media, one that suggests that if you make a mistake of any kind you become fair game for insults.
It is something that also happened to Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe, with the Congolese 23-year-old subjected to suffer racist abuse twice in the space of 10 days. After being perceived to be responsible for errors that led to United conceding goals and subsequently dropping important league points, Tuanzebe received a deluge of racism on social media platforms. Shockingly it appears to have been Manchester United fans who were responsible for the reprehensible actions.
No football player, or indeed anyone in society, should be subjceted to such abuse, whether online or not. If it were an isolated incident, not that it would lessen the impact of such horrific behaviour, it could at least be considered the act of one stupid individual.
Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated incident and, in recent times, similar examples of online racist abuse have been volleyed in the direction of fellow football stars, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Alexandre Jankewitz, Antonio Rudiger and Reece James.
With James’ sister Lauren, who plays for Manchester United Women, also on the receiving end of such behaviour, it now seems to be seeping into the womens game as well, which is before we even discuss the misogynistic comments that they must deal with on a weekly basis.
Quite simply, there have been too many incidents in a short space of time for this to be an issue that will naturally resolve itself in time. In fact, with so much recurrence, there is a suspicion that online abuse in football will continue to get worse and than even darker times are on the horizon.
There is a danger that the wider footballing community grow to consider this terrible state of affairs as the norm and that the community become desensitised to the horrific comments that are being anonymously sent on social media. For us to avoid that becoming the case, action must be taken now and swiftly to prevent the issue from snowballing.
So who is responsible for dealing with this problem? Is it the tech giants who provide the platforms for such vile abuse or does football need to send a stronger message to those who hide under an invisible digital cloak?
Realistically online abuse in football is something that needs shared shared accountability between the two. A genuine plan of action needs to be put in place to eradicate this blight on the beautiful game once and for all. If they don’t and online trolls are allowed to continue their campaigns of hate unchecked, then we can all expect online hatred to become even more prevalent in the future.
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