Character assassination

Inappropriate comments are hard to expunge from the social media archives. Paul Butler tells how the image of football fans can suffer as a result of such stupidity

Footballers are constantly in the papers for their social media faux pas, but fans have transgressed too. In May, Norwich City fan Luke O’Donoughoe became the first supporter to be banned from a football ground for posting racist tweets, after commenting on news that the Canaries had signed former Evertonian James Vaughan. Not only was he banned for life, the police charged him with “sending an offensive message by public communication network under the Communications Act 2003”, and the 22-year-old was sentenced to a 12-month community order with 120 hours of unpaid work.

Were it not for the outcry from his fellow fans, the case might never have gone to court, or been noticed by the club. But Twitter is no longer just for Stephen Fry and footballers with an ability to photoshop Howard Webb into a Man Utd shirt. If message boards are the equivalent of getting stuck in a tedious half-time argument with a bloke at the bar, Twitter is like that moment when you can shout your one-liner from the stands and wait for the cheers or hope it gets swallowed up by the next wave of chanting. The problem is when the chanting stops and everyone turns around to look at you.

This is precisely what happened with O’Donoughoe. All of a sudden he realised his comments were not going to be swept away, and he was effectively bundled out and told to get lost by his club and fellow fans, despite his apologies. Spewing vitriol and hatred on message boards is one thing but at least it’s confined, if no more excusable. With Twitter there is the possibility of your ill-judged comment being retweeted thousands, possibly millions of times in a matter of seconds.

As the government and supporters’ trusts build a case for giving fans more involvement in their clubs, this kind of free speech can be extremely counterproductive. Paul Bond, chairman of the Norwich City Supporters’ Trust (NCST), believes some Twitter-happy fans could be in danger of justifying many clubs’ assertions that supporters shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the boardroom.

“One of the cited barriers to fan representation is the fear that the ‘wrong type’ of fan will be exposed to confidential club discussions, which will be leaked,” he says. “Given the rise of social networking, the concern must be multiplied along with possible financial consequences of fan unrest, damage to brand image or collapse of financial negotiations. Any ill-considered twittering from fans may serve to reinforce any negative image and prejudice any serious voice fans and fan bodies may hold.”

Dave Boyle’s resignation as chief executive of Supporters Direct after tweeting comments about AFC Wimbledon’s promotion is proof of just that. The organisation has escaped a threatened enormous cut in funding as a consequence but only after some serious campaigning to repair the damage.

While many saw the threat of cuts as an overreaction, that a mere 140 characters caused so much consternation is a problem that is not going to go away. Mike Reynolds, secretary to the board of NCST, has empathy with Boyle’s situation. “There is no doubt the explosion of social media has opened the door to the instant response, leading to comments being made that, were they being made for a publication or in a letter to the press, would be more considered.”

While few of us have gone to O’Donoughoe’s extremes, most of us will have had regretful moments having just pressed “send”, “post” or “tweet”. But almost everything we do is now recorded for posterity through countless media and it confers a responsibility most of us do not want to comprehend. It is only when the police come knocking and you are banned from your club you love that the burden of that responsibility is truly and irrevocably felt.

From WSC 295 September 2011