British football has a prolonged and uncomfortable history with hooliganism. From 1960 to the 1990s, that destructive culture of criminal behaviour spread dramatically to the extent where violence, fights and rioting became common both outside and in stadiums.
Reducing it required a massive operation involving the deployment of more policemen, identifying and banning culprits and restructuring stadiums.
This behaviour caused injuries and fatalities and thus received enormous coverage from the media. To escape this coverage as well as the intensive policing, hooligans either ceased or withdraw to underground, remote locations.
Campaigns instigated by Margaret Thatcher and later developed by Tony Blair were knee-jerk reactions focused on prevention not cure. Hooliganism was a source of embarrassment as much as anything else and to save a damaging reputation, fans were forced to find other outlets for their grievances.
The hooliganism that existed then was an extreme level of violence and disgrace which we are unlikely see again. But that doesn’t mean the current manifestation of frustrated males, passionate about football and pursuing an outlet won’t do similar damage to the reputation of the game.
Welsh journalist Jon Ronson recently wrote a fascinating book about Twitter shaming. In it he looks at the rising trend of social media becoming a forum for public shamings. Ronson’s extensive novel looks in-depth at the victims of these shamings but it also provides insights into the perpetrators. He alludes to Twitter’s instinctive quality of giving a voice to the voiceless, both a wonderful and damaging consequence.
Irish journalist Ken Early actually referred to Ronson’s novel on a sports podcast, Second Captains. He drew comparisons to the treatment of 30-year old Justine Sacco, who tweeted an ill-judged attempt at satire in 2013 before flying from England to South Africa and ended up trending world-wide, having somebody turn up at the airport to take her picture, losing her job and suffering countless threats.
She became a source of amusement and received punishment which greatly exceeded the scale of the crime.
Early compared her to David Moyes, the ex-Manchester United football manager who last April was sacked after less than a year in charge. In one year Moyes suffered comparable criticism, mocking and harassment for a similarly trivial crime – being relatively unfit at his job.
Like Sacco, some did it for amusement, some because it genuinely upset them and some exploited the situation for commercial benefits – aeroplane WiFi providers Gogo promoted their product as a potential solution to Justine Sacco, Paddy Power hired a ‘Grim Reaper’ to stand behind David Moyes.
No group is more likely to ‘troll’ and pursue ‘banter’ via social media mocking and condemning than football fans. It’s a source of amusement, a distraction and an outlet. In many ways it’s everything that people subconsciously wanted when resorting to hooliganism.
And with alarmingly regularity it descends to abuse. In the 2013/2014 football season, 50% of all complaints about football-related hate crime reported to Kick It Out was in relation to social media abuse.
It’s a minority that engage in this activity but damaging in that it pays no heed to the victims. Early last season Manchester United lost 5-3 to Leicester to which Liverpool player Mario Balotelli tweeted ‘Man Utd… Lol’. Users responded by mocking his own performance, his hair, and his history of clubs, all of which was reasonable.
However last season Balotelli received 8,000 abusive tweets, of which 4,000 were racist. Users, emboldened by anonymity and the security of their homes, employ social media as an outlet for the very similar frustration that resulted in the rise of hooliganism. As is the nature of racism this didn’t just insult one person; it demeans an entire race.
Last month former footballer Phil Neville reported the abuse of him and his family to the police after he became the target of an online campaign. Threats included death threats, threats to rape his wife and threats against his 11-year-old daughter who was born with cerebral palsy.
One particular group of tweeters promoted a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Phil Neville’s daughter is a spastic’.
It’s a funny process. Organisation posts admiring pictures of Xabi Alonso, the cool footballer, fans tend to become convinced and agree. Organisations mock and undermine Phil Neville, fans find him as an easy and deserving target. Not necessarily cause and effect, but there’s a link.
In a recent case, Jermaine Beckford gave his shirt to a child in the crowd after scoring a hat-trick in the league one final, it was then allegedly stolen off him by a women in the crowd and Twitter went into a frenzy to ‘name and shame’ the criminal. They quickly identified the women, found her Facebook and unleashed a torrid of abuse at her, her friends and her family.
However they originally identified the wrong women. It wasn’t until the next day when the actual name came out.
The group proceeded to abuse her until she deleted her account, leaving in their wake the completely innocent and yet threatened, abused and insulted misidentified woman.
So severe is the problem, Kick it Out now employs a full-time reporting officer whose job is to act on incidents of online abuse and refer them to the relevant authorities. They have also established an action group.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) have hate crime lead officers tasked with tackling the same issue.
Perhaps we should be happy that the unsavoury aspect of football has evolved from explosive violence to the less extreme online bullying. Then again, inflicting physiological damage instead of physical isn’t always preferable.
Ronson’s book dealt with his genuine concern that Twitter could be spoiled for himself. That everything that made it great could be over-shadowed by these public shaming’s and the undeserving punishing of people. Twitter is wonderful for score updates, transfer rumours and of course hilarity.
But the lingering cloud is that often the users at which that this is aimed are also those tweeting out abuse and threats. Perhaps it’s just two unrelated sides, the people guilty of using social media as a platform to air out their frustrations by abusing someone else also happen to like football.
This could have even been the case with hooliganism. Physical abuse has been almost completely eradicated from the game, but the pack mentality remains in this new form of hooliganism behaviour.