How can Irish sports groups combat the toxic side of social media?

Online abuse has become a regular occurrence in this country, but what can be done about it asks Siadbh Redmond 
How can Irish sports groups combat the toxic side of social media?

Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

SPORT in Ireland provides an invaluable function for our society. 

The various sporting bodies promote physical and mental health while also offering an outlet from mainstream life.

For young people, sports can develop important life skills and attitudes, the benefits of which extend far beyond the playing field.

For the most part, these organisations depend on unpaid volunteers and amateur athletes who freely give up their time because of loyalty to their local clubs and communities, enthusiasm for sport, interest in youth development, the desire to give something back and finally social enjoyment.

Unfortunately, though the spirit of volunteerism is coming under threat from the dark side of social media. If you think about it logically nearly every coach, manager, referee, and committee members of clubs are all giving up their free time, to then be slated on social media platforms.

There have been many incidents of online abuse over the past number of years with many organisations struggling to get a grip on it.

In 2021, Kieran Leddy from the Munster GAA Council said, “while social media has hit positive points, the unfettered ability of people, often acting behind pseudonyms, to direct sustained and vile abuse at individuals and organisations, is undoubtedly a major downside”.

This issue is not unique to GAA as it has also raised its ugly head in organisations such as the FAI, IRFU, Basketball Ireland and others, with players and officials on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks.

These athletes, officials and coaches try their level best to perform on a regular basis for mainly the enjoyment of viewers watching on, why should they be subject to abuse when they are no different to any other human?

What can be done to reverse this tide? At the most fundamental level, an appeal to common decency can help alter behaviour.

In March of last year, Rugby Players Ireland released a powerful Twitter video with the hashtag #BeKind, featuring children voicing the text of actual insensitive tweets aimed at players. The video ended with “you wouldn’t want your kids to talk like this in the playground, so why would you say it online?”.

This was a powerful statement made in earnest to try and limit the number of negative comments players and officials receive, but can anything be done by the association itself?

Twitter has unfortunately been used as more direct way to hurl abuse at sports stars.
Twitter has unfortunately been used as more direct way to hurl abuse at sports stars.

Sports organisations do have it within their power to act against individuals who engage in inappropriate behaviour.

For example, the GAA’s social media policy states that all members are subject to the association's Code of Conduct when online, “even when they are not acting on behalf of the GAA… Do not engage in trolling, bullying, or abusive activity”.

The FAI and IRFU have similar provisions in their rule book retaining core values set out by the organisations and likewise penalties for misconduct. Ultimately though, the media has a responsibility in tempering the tone of online debate. 

While there is a place for fair analysis and commentary, overly severe scrutiny of players, officials, and administrators- especially those who are amateurs- is completely unjustified.

FACELESS

Another major problem with preventing online abuse is that it is extremely easy to create fake social media accounts under a false name, meaning that cowardly attacks can be made faceless.

A teenager was jailed for six weeks for racially abusing Marcus Rashford on Twitter after the Euro 2020 final. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
A teenager was jailed for six weeks for racially abusing Marcus Rashford on Twitter after the Euro 2020 final. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire.

This needs to be regulated so that all online accounts are authenticated and traceable to actual living persons, a measure that would not only address social media abuse but also tackle cybercrime and online fraud.

There are currently no laws in place to prevent a person from using a pseudonym or false identity to create a social media account, but it is illegal to use online accounts for unlawful purposes such as harassment, which is covered by Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.

However, this law is rather difficult to enforce as individual organisations cannot possibly be able to scroll through thousands of accounts each day.

The very essence of why we enjoy our sports in this country is being overshadowed and ruined by the constant attacks every player and official receives.

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