Football is a sport that conjures intense passion, unwavering loyalty and competition. It also frequently leads to clashes between opposing sets of fans. But at its core, football has the ability to inspire devotion amongst those who follow it. It is no surprise then, that these emotional extremes have spilt over into social media — the place for voicing opinions, connecting with others and reacting to events. 

The Pull of Social Media

Social media continues to grow. Take Twitter. At the start of 2017, it had 109 million daily active users. By 2021, that figure had swelled to 206 million. The Facebook Empire also continues to dominate, boasting over 3 billion users, which includes its long-held acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. However, this uptake in usage has coincided with another phenomenon; the increase of football-related content — both good and bad.

Football content has taken the rising star TikTok by storm. ‘Football Twitter’ has been coined for the online community of fans wishing to interact and exchange jokes amongst themselves. Most of these interactions are good-spirited, but racism and trolling continue to foul the atmosphere. Just how policymakers and firms deal with this dark side of social media will determine the future of platforms and subsequently, the future of football content.

Football Twitter

Football opinion on Twitter is extremely easy to find. After a big moment in the Premier League or a dubious refereeing decision in the Champions League, you’ll probably find comments on these issues on Twitter’s ‘trending section‘, especially here in the UK. Football topics typically dominate these charts weekly, if not daily — a testament to the huge community that now exists onTwitter. Influential internet personalities (often from YouTube) hold decent sway in these communities. There’s Mark Goldbridge, a Manchester United fan with 340,000 followers. He’s been having amusing interactions with a certain Mr DT, who happens to be an Arsenal fan with 243,000 followers. Funny commentary and vociferous opinion are also provided by obscure fan accounts. These bear their favourite player in the profile picture and a Twitter handle that displays their affinity for a particular club.

And yet, this evidently bustling community is poisoned by troll accounts that seek to fire abuse at football players and fellow users. During Euro 2020, the Guardian found that ‘more than 2,000 abusive messages, including scores of racist posts’, were sent during England’s first three games alone. For its part, Twitter has struggled to keep racist accounts off the platform with users reoffending by simply creating new accounts.

At a time when many different organisations and stakeholders are working hard to eliminate racism, Twitter is failing to stop football abuse.

TikTok the Disruptive Innovator

The design of TikTok is ingenious in many ways. By getting users to post short clips to the backdrop of trending music and added effects, the platform has become a creative powerhouse for those with an imagination and wit.  But the most inventive aspect is arguably TikTok’s ‘algorithm’ that sorts videos on the feed to suit a particular user’s interests. These can include videos from prominent accounts or from someone with no followers but who happens to hit a viral storm. It truly is democratic.

In a similar fashion to Twitter, football content on TikTok comprises a bustling community of fans that react to events and latch onto trends. Most of the top clubs in Europe now have a social media presence and many more have punched above their weight to gather huge followings. Take Walton & Hersham FC for example, a non-league football club that I and a few friends took over in June 2019 when we were just 19. Competing in the ninth division (Step 5) of English football, we have managed to experience exponential growth that transcends our current standing. Having over 330,000 followers and 3.4 million likes as of mid-September 2021, the club has a bigger following than the Premier League teams of Burnley, Brighton, and Southampton amongst others.

Yet such surreal exposure can be a curse rather than a blessing if enough users decide to turn against a particular content creator. One of the most peculiar examples is of ‘Cal the Dragon’, an autistic football fan who recorded himself saving shots in a goal in his back garden. Having gone viral an uncountable number of times, Cal has now amassed 1.2 million followers and his videos have been used by Premier League clubs such as Leicester and Watford, who all jumped on trends involving ‘the Dragon’. However, this exposure also made Cal a target for trolls who created numerous parody accounts to make fun of him. While football content is primarily good-spirited on TikTok, the persistent trolling of Cal highlights problems that can arise when users flood to viral videos for the wrong reasons. In response, creators have had to limit the number of comments and even take breaks from social media.

The Balancing Act

There is an endemic problem with traditional social media that gives an unsolicited voice to anyone. Potential offenders know that they have the freedom to vent their footballing frustrations with little effective repercussions. For Twitter and Facebook, this has been an ongoing issue that has seen mounting social pressure for reform. In April of this year, the Premier League clubs poignantly decided to boycott social media for 4 days, yet little has changed in the aftermath.

Despite these serious concerns, it must be emphasised that football opinion and debate on social media remains overwhelmingly good-hearted and well-intentioned. Football Twitter has become a prominent space to find fellow fans and discuss game events. As for TikTok, it has evolved into a very watchable platform that inspires football fans to make their own content — despite some teething problems around trolling. Nevertheless, there is a clear dilemma. Social media must find a balance between protecting its users whilst upholding its democratic code.

Watch this space.

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