EPL’s social media blackout shows social media companies need to act – and fast

As athletes endure abuse via social media, Thrive PR & Communications group account director (Sport) Pete Fairbairn examines what teams, managers and brands are doing in response.

Amongst the anger and despair felt amongst football fans across the globe following the European Super League announcement and subsequent fallout, an announcement that was even more significant for the English game – if not the world – flew under the radar.

In light of the continual online abuse suffered by their players, intensifying in dizzying proportion over recent weeks and months, the English Premier League revealed its plans for a social media blackout from 1-3 May. All 20 Clubs, and the league itself, will go silent across all platforms for three days, following in the footsteps of a move recently independently undertaken by British Clubs including Birmingham City, Rangers and Swansea.

Racist comments and emojis continue to follow players. They can come from their own ‘fans’ if they perform poorly and lose or, in the case of a striker, miss a seemingly easy goal. Likewise, they appear from opposition fans if their team wins, they make a tough tackle or behave in a way that makes the online user feel entitled to vilify them.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to the UK, or to athletes, for that matter. In the case of the NRL, we’ve seen Roosters veteran Josh Morris being told that somebody would be waiting for him outside the stadium after a game, as a result of a lost bet. Melbourne Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr recently posted to Instagram that “We don’t care about your multi,” receiving dozens of supportive comments from fellow players and fans.

Calls for the platforms to verify users’ identities are brushed away by the likes of Facebook, as they explain that less-advantaged communities without access to proper identification would then be rendered unable to join and have a voice. This week, we’ve seen the Facebook-owned Instagram develop tools to protect high-profile users – but these measures don’t go far enough, only allowing athletes to view filtered direct messages with words blacked out and decide whether to accept them or not, a sort of macabre decision making process that some will not be able to resist, even when aware of the impending pain.

Rugby League Players’ Association chief executive Clint Newton said that while these are positive moves by Instagram, “filtering out the abuse does not change the fact that this kind of behaviour is still rife in our game and the broader community, and we must all continue to advocate for consistent and unrelenting change. We will continue to support our members in standing up against online abuse and advocate for an increased level of accountability for the perpetrators of such behaviour”.

Also over the course of the last few weeks, several EPL clubs received a pitch from the US firm Respondology, “whose software allows the abuse to be hidden in real time on several major social platforms, which means their players would not be exposed to the abuse”. This technology is further advanced from the filters mentioned above, with players never aware of the abuse occurring, but as trolls hiding behind avatars online will undoubtedly look to exploit loopholes within it, the onus remains on the social media networks themselves to find a solution.

We’ve seen many athletes simply elect to not operate social media accounts. I have long been passionate about the ways in which athletes can develop their online presence. It’s an opportunity for them to take commercial advantage of the window in which they play professionally, and position themselves for the next phase of their career through activity which is articulate, clever or even funny. I see a real missed opportunity for athletes who elect not to participate. Imagine as a business professional if you were given this catch 22 decision – you can have a LinkedIn account, but must expect to have your everyday performance publicly dissected in a ruthless and aggressive fashion. The alternative is to miss out on the networking and employment opportunities if you’re unwilling to cop that heat. What would you choose?

The social media shutdown might not be the solution in the long run, but it’s a big and brave point that these Clubs and the English Premier League are making – their reach and content is worth millions of dollars to their commercial partners, so they are certainly sacrificing plenty by going silent for 72 hours. Let’s see if this stings the platforms into action.

Pete Fairbairn is the group account director (sport) at Thrive PR & Communications.


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