James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Why won't The Blades and other clubs take the most obvious step to put pressure on social media organisations?
There’s an old American joke, wrongly attributed in some quarters to Woody Allen, about a couple of old women holidaying in a mountain resort who meet up over a meal.
“The food here is terrible,” exclaims one. “I know,” replies the other. “And the portions are so small.”
I’m paraphrasing slightly and the gag has a different meaning. But I was reminded of it earlier this week when Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, became the latest high profile figure in domestic sport to rail against the moral cesspits that are allowed to stagnate on certain social media platforms.
“There’s things going on at this football club, that I can’t and won’t go into, where players are getting stuff,” he said, confirming people working at Bramall Lane have also been targeted by the racists and faceless cowards - because that’s what they are, not trolls - who have subjected the likes of Axel Tuanzebe and Mike Dean to their pathetic bantz in recent weeks. “People are making money out of this and they shouldn’t be able to.
“Even though it’s a big situation, should the police have to deal with this? They have enough on their plate, rather than going to speak to people about this. They have enough to do to keep our fabulous city and the entire region safe. They don’t go into the police force just to spend 90 per cent of their time dealing with social media. It’s the companies that have to take the responsibility for it.”
While I agree wholeheartedly with the main thrust of Wilder’s message, I take issue with a couple of points. Firstly, the people ultimately to blame for spreading bile across the internet are those who create it. Secondly, yes, the police should be expected to adapt to changing trends in criminal behaviour providing the government provides them with the necessary funding and training required to do so. But it is also impossible to take issue with the basic message Wilder, whose own family has been exposed to this growing phenomenon in the past, was trying to get across. As a journalist, whose own publication would be sued if it published something I wrote deemed to be illegal, I still find it difficult to accept that many self-confessed ‘media’ firms operating in cyberspace are not held accountable for the work of their content providers in exactly the same way.
Harry Maguire, the Manchester United captain who started his career at Bramall Lane, recently called for social media companies to demand passport or other identification details from their users before allowing them to create accounts. Again, what appears at first glance to be an eminently sensible idea raises a number of other potential issues too lengthy and complex to be discussed here.
What is certain is that ‘Big Tech’ will resist, whilst making plenty of cosmetic gestures to try and persuade the world otherwise, to curb their influence, power and ability to generate stack loads of cash. Because that’s what drives these organisations - dollars and pounds. Not bringing people together, spreading happiness and cheer or any of the other saccharine raisins d’etre they like to pump out. They also feel confident enough and big enough to try and take on entire states, as a worrying recent development in Australia highlights.
At this juncture, I think it’s important to recognise that a desire to generate wealth is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s what drives nearly every business on the planet and, some notable exceptions apart, we are happy to transact with them. If you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever you know your data is being harvested. It’s up to you to decide if the benefits of joining these communities outweigh the negatives - such as eroding your privacy.
But back to the quip about the two hungry pensioners meeting up over a meal. What would you do if you went out for dinner and, as the main course arrived, one of the staff on duty could be heard spouting hate speech? The chances are, you’d report it to the owner. But what if they simply shrugged their shoulders and told the person responsible to get back to work? Would you go back and eat there again? Would you think it was a place you wanted to spend your wages and help pay those of the bigot concerned? Certainly not.
Which is why the actions of football clubs, when it became clear to anyone with a laptop, mobile phone, newspaper or television that a serious problem exists, confuses me.
Despite expressing their outrage at the treatment of Tuanzebe, Old Trafford’s communications team have posted more than 100 snippets of information on one well-known social media site since the 23-year-old defender was abused. United’s accounts have also remained active, ensuring they maintain a relationship with the very same folk their most recognisable figurehead believes should be doing more to tackle this thoroughly depressing issue. I don’t doubt the desire of those involved in football to root out the offenders and ensure they are punished. But I am puzzled by their methods, and insistence on continually interacting with those who give them a voice.
Wilder, more passionate and emotional than I have seen him for a long while, admitted it is time to “take a stand” against the racists, homophobes, chauvinists and death threat merchants. He then questioned, quite legitimately, why that was even necessary in 2021.
The first thing football clubs should do, en masse, is refrain from posting anything on their social media accounts for at least six months. Or until proper safeguards and protections are put in place.