Before getting into how toxic social media, particularly Twitter can be, I feel like I must preface it with this opening.
I am not blameless in this. I cannot write this and say that I haven’t in the past been guilty of some of the things that make Twitter problematic. I have argued with people about just about anything and made personal comments to them, I have been aggressive and confrontational over matters of opinion. I have even got involved in trivial things in the past. Sport, for example, I have argued as if it were a matter of life and death.
In honesty, I still can find myself drawn in sometimes and, while I believe I now only allow myself to argue about things that really matter and that are worthwhile, I am still guilty of unnecessary things such as swearing out of frustration and finding myself taken on a tangent that isn’t as worthwhile as the original discussion.
The point of this piece is that while we all are responsible for our words and actions, it is Twitter that facilitates not only the existence of that side of us, but its very cultivation.
Now, there are too many individual communities on Twitter to cover in totality, but the ones I will use as an example in this piece is that of football fans. I am quite politically vocal on social media and up until not too long ago I had been just as outspoken, perhaps more so, about football and the team I grew up supporting. I have since fallen somewhat out of love with the game, that is a story for another day, but its community is one that I feel exemplifies some of the worst Twitter has to offer.
Football Twitter is large. Exceptionally large. Lots of people like football and lots of people use Twitter, so it makes sense that significant sections of football Twitter is fine, just normal people talking about football. Yet, because this is Twitter, a rancid subculture lurks just below the surface.
Say what you will about hooliganism (Margaret Thatcher discussions are certainly best saved for another day/year/century/whatever), but the idea of aggressive football fans allowing the worst side of themselves to manifest when provided with a level of anonymity, be it by a crowd or the quite literal ability to make themselves anonymous, is certainly visible on social media.
You see a lot of it on Twitter, particularly if you are following incoming football scores and results from about 4pm onwards on a Saturday afternoon and for just about the rest of the weekend. First you see an update that a black player has done something to upset the other teams’ fans, sometimes their own. Then, holding your breath for no reason as you already know what’s coming, you open the replies. Some will be normal, perhaps expletive expressions of disappointment, joy and suchlike and then you see the first ‘N word’, the first abusive comment ending with an emoji of a monkey’s face, the replies that make you feel a bit sick.
As former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright said; “It seems to be a fact if a black player plays poorly – or they think they did – they come with all the emojis and whatever.”
Wright was speaking after it was revealed that Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford, who has spent the last several months campaigning for causes such as promoting the concept of children reading and lobbying the government for fair treatment and assistance to be given to children in poverty, received several vile, racist messages through social media (on this occasion it was Instagram), following his side’s result at the weekend. This was revealed less than 24 hours after Reece James of Chelsea had been subjected to similar abuse. This is disgustingly representative of the cesspool that football social media is becoming.
It is hard not to focus on issues of race, as it is so appallingly rife in football social media that it often dominates the back pages more than the results themselves. There are other aspects to social media that make the football community on the platforms a toxic environment, such as misogyny, which is sadly seen far too often when a story about events in women’s football is published and numerous, insecure men feel the need to ‘explain’ how the women’s game is inferior.
Why do they feel the need? It is hard to imagine, particularly in situations such as those I just mentioned, what reason these people had to think it acceptable to devalue sporting men and women like that.
There is a word, though. It is a word I am coming to absolutely despise. “Clout”. Clout on social media is in essence the reach of the account and the respect that it has from the communities it takes part in. I have noticed there is something of a market for clout in football social media, with it being a commodity that can be monopolised by particularly “powerful” accounts, and it gets traded, for lack of a better word, when an account is deemed worthy.
Clout is not inherently a bad thing. Really, it just means influence, but football Twitter like much of the platform itself is subject to the influence of people who know how to manipulate it.
I am hesitant to use the phrase “toxic-masculinity” here, but there is a jock-ish nature to the market for clout on football Twitter. Men (and it is predominantly men), who run accounts that are aggressive, unpleasant, condescending, and arrogant, let us call them Clout Accounts, are often afforded respect by sections of football Twitter. Usually, if not always, this respect is shown by the sections that funnily enough support what those men are saying.
When a time comes that the follower does not agree with the Clout Account on a subject, it’s too late. That follower is already in deep having been sycophantically liking, replying to, and retweeting just about everything the Clout Account has posted since they came across them.
Scenario time. Let us say that a guy starts out on football Twitter with a pretty good understanding of the game. So, he starts commenting on the team he supports and knows the best. He makes some points that his club’s followers agree with and builds a reputation in that smaller community. His confidence is high and, because he knows full well how to best utilise Twitter to get to the top of the community, he builds up those he agrees with, forming a sort of coalition, while beginning to get more and more aggressive and condescending with those he does not. His approach to dealing with opposing ideas gets pretty full-on, but by now this is what he is known for, he has almost created a brand for himself, making the community just that bit more toxic in his stead.
Does all that sound familiar? Well tough, I am taking the Stephen Colbert approach and attempting to not refer to the former POTUS by name as much as possible. Damn right, this paradigm is applicable to all areas of Twitter and right to the very top. Just replace football with politics, the team the example supports with a target political demographic, and the aggression and condescension with outlandish conspiracy theories and bizarre, racially fuelled stunts and quotes. Those scenarios stacked up together quickly, huh? Eerie, I know.
Again, I must stress, people are responsible for their actions, but Twitter facilitates this sort of thing. I am not saying Twitter’s a sentient being, deciding this should happen. Rather, Twitter’s wide culture has developed to a point where lack of decency and civility is rewarded. People with an edge gain notoriety because that, for better or worse, is what circulates the most on Twitter. Peoples’ unpleasantness is positively reinforced by the attention it gets. I suppose it is a kind of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” thing. Perhaps; “there is no such thing as bad exposure on Twitter if it gets your account/message noticed” fits better?
The reason this boils down to Twitter itself is that Twitter provides a level of anonymity. Even if a person chooses to not be entirely anonymous, the very nature of it being an online platform affords a form of detachment from the scenario in which a person feels relatively safe, certainly enough to say what they want to say without fear of tangible consequence.
With issues like racism, misogyny and others that cross that boundary into hate speech, threat and possible legal involvement, accounts are more likely to be as anonymous as they can manage to be and it is intensely problematic that they can do so.
Not to sound like John Lennon, I cannot sing, for starters, but imagine social media where it was required that people use their full, real names and had clear pictures of themselves, maybe even details of where they worked. How much of the nonsense would we see then? No need for an answer there.
It is long past time for Twitter, and indeed other social media platforms, to require its users to give a level of transparency. Nothing major, no address, no bank details, no instructions for how to 3D print a key to their bedroom window, but enough to make sure people are genuinely accountable for what they put into the world. If, for some reason people do not want to give that transparency, then they always have the option to not sign up, of course.