I haven’t had that many death threats. Quite often they’re quite passive – trolls wishing I was dead but not even being bothered to do it themselves. “How the fuck u ain’t been fired is a miracle. You complete dry lunch bell end…DIE!!!”
Threats of violence seem slightly more proactive. “Not many things get to me but that wanker Max Rushden does. I’d love to smack him” or “Id like to wellie u with a polo mallet u absolute c**t”.
This week we’ve heard of death threats towards Steve Bruce and Mike Dean. The misogyny and threats of sexual violence aimed at female players, pundits and journalists. And the racist emojis, pictures and words that appear in the direct messages of players on Instagram on an almost daily basis. On Wednesday, Yan Dhanda, a 22-year-old Swansea player, was racially abused after his team lost to Manchester City. If a Swansea player is going be the victim of racism after losing to the best team in the country, then we are at the stage where every black, Asian or minority ethnic player is going to be racially abused whenever he or she is on the losing side of any football match. Who’ll be next after Dhanda, Tuanzebe, Rüdiger, Reece James and Lauren James? And these are just a few of the ones we know about.
Anyone with any kind of following gets abuse. It has genuinely never bothered me. I’m in the fortunate position to have been confident and comfortable enough as a broadcaster – rightly or wrongly – before Twitter really took off. The abuse I receive is obviously incomparable with racism, sexism and homophobia. That’s part of white male privilege – the stuff I receive is solely about my ability to do my job. Nothing about my background, my ethnicity, my gender.
But I have seen other broadcasters have to turn the message board off at TalkSport during a show because it affects them so much. And I’m pretty certain that if social media had the influence it has now when I began hosting Soccer AM on Sky Sports in 2008, I wouldn’t have lasted. I was nervous and inexperienced and the abuse I would have received would have been too much. It would have taken away the little confidence I had and I’m not sure I’d have been afforded the time that I was to get through what was a really hard couple of years.
“Thank God there was no Twitter when I was playing,” Jamie Carragher tweeted a few weeks ago about the stick Liverpool’s Nat Phillips was getting. “He’s a young kid still learning & was left alone & exposed far too often.”
There’s someone on Twitter who has made an account devoted to getting me fired. Sack Max Rushden. He or she has made a 10-point manifesto. I found it funny to begin with. I followed the account, retweeted it. But it became relentless – a real mission of unpleasantness and desperation – actually genuinely wanting me to lose all my income. Eventually I muted, and then blocked. Why am I wasting my time?
I have been guilty of fuelling this for years. You retweet one insult, more will follow. Bosses have often told me to stop. I’ve stubbornly persisted – almost to say I’m bigger than this, and your words mean nothing. But I don’t know if that is the right thing to do.
Andrew Stroehlein, from Human Rights Watch, posted an excellent thread about how to deal with trolls: don’t share the ugly stuff, don’t repeat the framing of hate-mongers, never share links to hateful headlines and clickbait, do share the good stuff, block early and often.
I have always muted and almost never blocked. I like the idea of someone shouting into the abyss – and that being blocked is somehow a badge of honour. “Blocking prevents trolls and propagandists from using your replies for their nonsense in the future,” says Stroehlein.
The trolls, racist or not, know they can get away with it. Does it help to keep reposting the abuse? Or does it encourage others to do the same? Would it be better to report racial hatred to the police but not give oxygen to those spreading hate?
Marcus Rashford tweeted: “I’m not sharing screenshots. It would be irresponsible to do so and as you can imagine there’s nothing original in them. I have beautiful children of all colours following me and they don’t need to read it. Beautiful colours that should only be celebrated.”
I interviewed the Mirror’s Darren Lewis on TalkSport. “People need to see the extent of what players are going through,” he said. “We only started to take it seriously when we started to see it. Unless you see it you can’t appreciate the extent of the abuse – you can’t get the context, you can’t see what players have had to endure. You have to see the ugliness of it to realise what people are going through.”
On the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, the journalist Jordan Jarrett Bryan said: “I’m of the very unpopular opinion that if you are being racially abused online and it’s affecting you to the point where your mental health is being seriously affected, if it’s making you scared to open your phone, if it’s reducing you to tears, then come off it. The counter argument is: ‘Why should I come off social media if someone is abusing me?’ I get it, but we can keep saying that, but in the meantime, your mental health is suffering.”
Instagram says it is going to ban accounts that send racist abuse. The major stakeholders in the English game have written to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey asking for them to take this seriously. If social media companies have dragged their feet over the spread of fake news and its contribution to democratic votes around the world, you suspect a few hundred footballers in the UK getting racially abused isn’t going to top their agenda. “There’s no money in fighting racism,” Jarrett Bryan says. “That is the harsh reality. This is not hard. And if they really care it would be done tomorrow.”