When does ‘banter’ become bullying?

Opinion article for Blues Talk by Olivia Phantis – football fan, guest writer and friend of Burnham FC – 01/09/2022

Social media has become such a huge part of our lives so quickly that for most of us, it’s hard to imagine your day without it. Many football fans use it to keep up to date with their favourite clubs and players. Footballers have mostly embraced it, although many have PR agencies and publicists managing their accounts. Although this can make them a bit disconnected from their fanbase, it is a good way to control their image and ultimately make sure they stick to what they’re paid for: football. 

Social media highlights the divisiveness in almost every aspect of society, and sport is no different. While there is nothing wrong with ‘banter’ on Twitter, it can very quickly turn ugly and devolve into vicious bullying. When Bukayo Saka missed the deciding penalty in the final of the 2020 European Championships, he received thousands of abusive Tweets, many of which were racially motivated. This is, of course, another nasty and unacceptable side of social media that never seems to be adequately addressed by social media companies. Offenders are starting to be prosecuted for this, with multiple reports of people being jailed for racially abusing Saka, as well as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, who also missed penalties in the shootout. 

There was a recent report looking into the amount of abuse received by footballers in the 2021-22 season. This report found that 8 out of the 10 most abused players in the first five months of the season played for Manchester United. This coincided with a poor season (by their standards), so one could assume that Manchester United fans were abusing their own players, although it would be difficult to prove this definitively. It also found that “around one in 12 abusive tweets targeted a victim’s protected characteristic, such as their race or gender”.

Although this report did not look into abuse suffered by players in the Women’s Super League, it is very apparent when you scroll through Twitter that they are also a target. However, it seems to be more generalised abuse instead of specific abuse, as most of the people who get angry about women’s football don’t actually watch the games, so don’t really know the players. This is especially ludicrous when England Women won the European Championships in 2022, so should be celebrated for their achievements. However, they’re openly mocked for not being at the ‘same level’ as their male counterparts, which is also ridiculous in itself. 

Every club’s fans are guilty of abuse on social media, whether it be to their player, a player from another club or their manager during a tricky spell. It can be easy to forget that they are people too, and not just a figure on the television screen or 20 metres away on a football pitch. Abuse is not tolerated in stadiums, and perpetrators are identified and banned where necessary, but social media companies seem to be miles behind where they should be when it comes to holding users accountable. As these platforms continue to grow, you would hope that they would implement new measures in the near future to make social media a better experience for everyone. 

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