Inflammatory online material has been a factor in stormy games in Glasgow recently. Mark Poole looks at efforts to stem the tide

The fifth Old Firm match of this season was marked by three red cards, touchline arguments and more than 30 arrests in the stadium. As is usual on derby days, the number of arrests in Glasgow was significantly higher than usual. The SFA, police, politicians and journalists were appalled, so Celtic’s Peter Lawwell and Rangers’ Martin Bain were summoned to Edinburgh for a summit six days later.

Michel Platini praised the SFA for taking action, but among the usual photo opportunities, political manoeuvring and debates about the extent to which football clubs can be held accountable for Scotland’s complex relationship with violence, most of the recommendations were old news. Except for one: a commitment to tackle hatred and bigotry on the internet.

So far this year, at least three Facebook pages have been set up to target Celtic manager Neil Lennon. In January, the social networking giant initially refused to close down “Let’s get 100,000 people who want to see Neil Lennon get shot”, a page set up a few days after Lennon had been sent live bullets in the post and which contained numerous death threats. Facebook cited freedom of speech and said “What one person finds offensive, another can find entertaining”, but removed the page one day later.

Since he joined Celtic as a player, Lennon has been beaten unconscious in the street, has had to retire from international football because of death threats that the police advised him to take seriously, and is now living under 24-hour security while his partner and their young son are moved to safe houses on matchdays. Shortly after he was posted bullets, a hoax nail bomb was sent to him. In such an environment, threatening web pages become as chilling as the “RIP Lennon” graffiti daubed on a Lurgan wall in his playing days.

In February, “Bet I can get one million people to hate Neil Lennon” featured a mocked-up picture of Lennon riddled with bullet holes and covered in blood. Facebook demanded that the image was removed from the page, but when it returned they closed the page down. In March, “Hunt down Neil Lennon and shoot him” appealed for information on Lennon’s whereabouts and boasted that it had access to guns and bombs that could be used against him, a plausible claim when the links between terrorist groups and a small minority of football extremists on both sides of the Old Firm are all too real.

Lennon’s lawyer, Paul McBride, says he has found at least 30 sites with threats against his client. Some have featured his address and pictures of his partner and their son. An independent Rangers fan site reportedly had to suspend three members for posting a cartoon of Lennon hanging from a noose.

Lennon has not been the only victim of online hate. Former Rangers players Nacho Novo and Fernando Ricksen have both reportedly had their addresses posted online. Footballers’ houses are attacked all too often in Scotland. Anthony Stokes’s home was targeted by Rangers fans earlier this season, while his parents were alone inside, and Joe Ledley’s home and car were recently vandalised. Web-savvy fans of all clubs are usually familiar with the sort of hateful comments that can be posted on blogs and online articles. Unsurprisingly, the comments Celtic and Rangers fans encounter often feature religious intolerance, and attempts to justify sectarian hatred.

From the Daily Record to the Guardian and the BBC, comments pages provide a valuable service to fans of all clubs, particularly when the sites exercise prompt removal of inappropriate comments. But, along with any hate-filled Facebook pages, unless these pages are moderated, such comments can amount to incitement to violence. Or – in the case of Celtic and Rangers – incitement to religious and/or racial hatred: real crimes perpetrated in a virtual world.

Which is where the police come in, and they are currently investigating reports of online hatred, with the intention of identifying and prosecuting perpetrators. But this growing crime presents specific challenges – primarily identifying the culprits who hide behind anonymous user names. Strathclyde Police are not yet in a position to say whether they can demand personal details from Facebook, but users do not currently have to provide any identification to prove they are who they say they are. Before wireless broadband became the norm, it was easier to identify users posting comments through their IP addresses, a process no longer so simple in a world of wi-fi, 3G and IP blocking software.

Of course, Scotland is not the only country where football rivalry goes too far, and its problems with online hatred are likely to be echoed elsewhere. Strathclyde Police are one of the many forces that now have high-tech crime units. It won’t be easy, but they can hopefully become world leaders in prosecuting keyboard bigots.

From WSC 291 May 2011

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