The domestic football programme has taken a pause over the past week, with European nations beginning their delayed 2022 World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant a pause in the incidents of footballers suffering abuse online, something which has been a recurring issue for a while now, particularly this season.
Players have long been calling for social media companies to do more to tackle the issue, often met with token responses along the lines of ‘we have zero tolerance for racism on our platform…’ before announcing that the individuals in question shown to be abusive have had their accounts removed.
It seems that this inaction is no longer washing, with Thierry Henry taking himself off all social media platforms last week. Prior to removing his accounts on Saturday, the Arsenal and France legend posted: ‘The sheer volume of racism, bullying and resulting mental torture to individuals is too toxic to ignore. There HAS to be some accountability. It is far too easy to create an account, use it to bully and harass without consequence and still remain anonymous.
‘Until this changes, I will be disabling my accounts across all social platforms. I’m hoping this happens soon.’
This occurred only a matter of hours before it was revealed that Wales youngsters Rabbi Matondo and Ben Cabango received racist abuse in the wake of their friendly victory over Mexico on Saturday.
Schalke winger Matondo, who is on loan at Stoke City, took to Instagram and Twitter to share the abhorrent messages he’d received and said, questioning the priorities of these sites in terms of addressing the issue: ‘Another week of Instagram doing absolutely nothing about racial abuse. My insta will get taken down if I post any clips from my games though’.
This reference to social media platforms seemingly taking stronger, swifter action against instances of copyright infringement is a notion that continues to frustrate. It seems the only way to force these companies to take meaningful action is to hit them in their pockets, something which will hopefully be achieved if more high profile sports stars follow in Henry’s footsteps.
Matondo’s international team-mate and captain, Gareth Bale, echoed this sentiment, saying ‘something needs to happen.’
‘I think if everyone came together and decided to boycott social media to make a statement [I would].
‘If everybody did it at once, not just one or two people, and if we did a campaign with a lot of big influential people in sport and other forms of life came off social media to make a statement, then yeah, I think it could help.
‘If that was the case, I would be all for that.’
Being such an avid football supporter, and with Twitter probably my most-used social media app, I have become very familiar with ‘Football Twitter’ – the name given to the collective community of users on the platform posting about the sport, often with images of high profile players as their display pictures.
It is a massive community consisting of fans of many clubs, and a significant aspect of the culture revolves around bantering each other. It is predominantly good-natured and amusing, although in typical football style these interactions can often become petty and infantile.
The problem is, as Henry alluded to, there is no way of identifying the people behind a vast majority of these accounts, catalysing the mindless minority who seek to take this too far in the form of discriminatory abuse.
The media are rightly drawing attention to these incidents, but I can’t help but feel as though the amount of coverage they generate actually encourages future attacks, with sad people getting mainstream coverage by simply directing hate at others behind the safety of their screen.
This leaves us in a bit of a Catch 22 situation when it comes to pressuring social media companies to take action, a vicious circle of raising awareness in order to bring the issue to their attention while potentially leading to more of the attacks that we want to prevent in the process.
As a result, I am inclined to think that a collective boycott of the platforms from high profile footballers, as well as other big names from outside the sport, might be the only way of sparking effective change. What exactly could this change look like, though?
I’ve long thought that the only real way of combatting online hate in all its forms is that people making social media accounts should have to submit identification data, whether that be a passport or driving licence number. It doesn’t have to be public-facing, just a way for social media companies and, if necessary, the authorities, to be able to identify people and take further action in the worst cases of abuse.
People have opposed this idea with the view that it’s invasive, with a lack of trust towards the likes of Facebook in handling their personal data. I would argue that we have to provide ID for other online services, such as for online gambling, so I don’t see how that would be much different. If we’re serious about changing things, I don’t see much of an alternative.