James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Join the social media blackout to show Big Tech they can't ride roughshod over society

Admittedly I’ve not been on it much myself in recent weeks.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 6:00 pm

But that’s for reasons I and only a handful of other people know about. One of whom has clearly either got too much time on their hands or has taken exception to something I’ve done or said.

To be frank, they’ve done me a favour. Because I’ve quite enjoyed taking a break from social media.

For the most part, it’s an enjoyable and easy way of communicating with readers. But as we all know, platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have got a darker side as well. One where folk can, for the most part, seeimigly subject others to racist, homophobic, religious, misognyistic and misandristic abuse without any fom of comeback. Unless, of course, the victim is high profile enough to persuade the authorities to get involved and organise a proper investigation. If not then, well, you’re pretty much on your own.

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Twitter, Instagram and Facebook Apps on a phone screen: Matthew Vincent/PA Wire.

Anyway, after limiting my journeys into cyberspace over the past couple of weeks, I was preparing to dust down the astro suit and start exploring the galaxy again. That was until Premier League, English Football League and also Womens’ Super League clubs announced a four day boycott of their own official accounts this weekend. It is something I urged them to do when writing this column at the beginning of this month - wondering why they frequently called for Big Tech to show greater leadership, governance and yes moral fibre but then drove dollars in the direction of Silicon Valley by engaging with them as if nothing had happened. Fortunately, thankfully, someone, somewhere, has seen the light.

It’s bizarre that, for the best part of a year, folk have been taking a knee to protest against one form of discrimination yet, until now, allowing those whose products have become the most effective vehicles for hate speech to get away scott free.

“It’s good that everyone is at one with this,” Paul Heckingbottom, Sheffield United’s caretaker manager, said when the news first broke. “It’s important that we all stand together as one because, when everyone is aligned, that really helps to reinforce the message. Something needs to be done and I’m glad we are doing it.”

“It (social media) can be brilliant for some things. But there’s a dark side to it as well and I really believe it’s getting to the point where lots of people might stop using it because they don’t want to be a part of what’s happening.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Good luck with that Hecky, because some folk can’t see past their latest photo-shopped selfie, recycled tweet or tiresome meme.

Although the status footballers enjoy means their complaints about illegality on the internet are taken more seriously than - say, Sally or Steve from S2 - it also means they are exposed to more than their fair share of idiots, bigots and sad little boys and girls who either confuse hate speech with ‘bantz’ or are simply thicker than Del Boy’s Filofax.

But remember, as horrendous as some of the abuse I’ve read is, this issue doesn’t simply affect footballers. It’s to do with everyone. Which is why, despite getting ready to crack my personal accounts back into life, Yours truly has taken the decision to join in with the protest. I’d like to think everyone with a modicum of decency in their bodies will be doing the same. Because if we can launch people into space and tackle pandemics, then I find it impossible to believe the boffins working for Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, with the untold billions being placed at their disposal, can’t find a way to police these online communities better. We all know they probably can, but simply can’t be bothered - fearing it might lose them a few followers or hit end of year profits. Which really isn’t good enough.

“Families, friends and loved ones get affected by this as well,” Heckingbottom said, when asked about the situation before last weekend’s win over Brighton and Hove Albion; his first since being placed in interim charge following Chris Wilder’s departure. “That’s the bit that often gets overlooked. It spreads and it’s not right. For anyone who is subject to it.”

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

“Ideally, I’d like to see some sort of registration process,” he added. “But they won’t do that because it will cost them time and money. It’s been mentioned and broughbt up but that’s why it won’t get brought in.”

Heckingbottom is right. Bang on in fact. By refusing to act, the people who like to pretend their mission statement is all about bringing the world together are merely confirming their primary motivation is actually cold, hard cash. Unfortunately, millions get hoodwinked by this type of warm, cuddly and utterly ridiculous nonsense. Or choose to look the other way because it suits.

As much as I endorse the step United and their colleagues are taking, I doubt it will have much of an effect. The companies being targeted might make some sort of gesture or concession, it will be pretty meaningless and on their terms. After all, if one internet giant was prepared to try and bludgeon an entire country into submission earlier this year, one suspects four days or so of radio silence won’t leave them quaking in their boots.

If my suspicions are correct, hopefully English football is prepared to ratchet-up the pressure with most fans also coming on board.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: David Becker/Getty Images

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