For as long as prejudice and abuse exists in society it will always exist on social media: but that doesn’t mean we have to take it, excuse it on that basis, or ignore it.
I have received my fair share of abuse in relation to things I’ve written: “Honestly stop writing about football you clearly know nothing you stupid fucking whore”, “clown”, “you’re a complete idiot. You’re a fake feminist”, “plug in the iron love”, “stay at home just cooking”, “give your head a wobble you stupid cow!”, “ooooooo fuck off Suzy you mutt.”
Then there are the men who think it is OK to slide into my direct messages with rose and heart emojis, messages such as “how are you doing today pretty?”, “hello sexy”, “hello sweetheart Suzy how are you?”, “hey mama”, and the even creepier meme-like images which say things such as: “when you become really close to someone you can hear their voice in your mind when you read their text”.
My online profile is low compared to many other sports journalists and my stats cower in the shadows of those racked up by professional footballers, male or female. I probably get a fraction of the messages they do. As thick as my skin is, and it shouldn’t have to be thick, I do get weary. To imagine what it would be like to increase the volume of messages I receive – even to double it – is, quite frankly, depressing.
That’s why I have chosen to take part in football’s boycott of social media from 3pm on Friday until midnight on Monday. It is an act of solidarity. An act of solidarity with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Lauren James, Axel Tuanzebe, Romaine Sawyers, Karen Carney, Reece James, Alex Jankewitz, Anthony Martial, Alex Scott and all the others who have joined a seemingly ever‑increasing lineup of footballers and people associated with the game to be targeted.
You could easily question the effectiveness of a blackout or boycott of social media. You could legitimately argue it should not be the progressive voices that are silenced. Or that those taking part are in some ways no-platforming themselves and handing over these powerful tools to the abusers who will have free rein to scream their obscenities and prejudices into the online ether unchallenged. Are we, by default, giving them a safe space to spit their bile?
These are legitimate questions to ask. Blackouts and boycotts are not the solution but they can be a very effective tactic and the scale of this operation means it will send a powerful message. This is not one club, one player or one organisation involved. It is a large proportion of the domestic football family – the Football Association, the Premier League, the EFL, the Women’s Super League, the Women’s Championship, the PFA, the LMA, the PGMOL, Kick It Out and the FSA – putting aside the politics often at play between them to stand up for players and others involved in the game who have suffered abuse, primarily racist abuse, online.
There will be casualties (for want of a better word) this weekend. As a women’s football writer, I am painfully aware it is the final day of the women’s Championship season. Leicester City will lift the title at Filbert Way where they play for the first time on Sunday, against Charlton, and there will be no online fanfare, no celebrations going viral. Social media has been critical to the growth of women’s football, providing access to live scores, results, match updates: information that has historically not been available elsewhere and, in the case of the Championship and lower leagues, is still often very hard to find.
Cutting out social media cuts off a lifeline for fans of women’s football clubs. That is partly why I have bulk-ordered some badges from Kick It Out and Love Football Hate Racism and have offered to do a sort of physical version of Twitter updates by posting a badge and written tweet every time a goal is scored in any of the weekend’s women’s football matches to anyone who wants one. It is primarily a bit of fun, but it is also an excuse to donate to some worthy causes, and it gets some important messages from some important organisations pinned to shirts.
It is critical this boycott is not a one-off. It should be viewed as part of a broader collective campaign that does not stop at punishing those with abhorrent views or who troll for the sake of trolling, but explores more broadly the root causes of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of abuse, and looks to use the popularity and power of football to drive the changes needed more generally in society to eradicate those views for good. By taking part in this boycott I hope to be able to contribute, where I can and where appropriate, to these conversations. These are the conversations that interest me and that I feel passionate about.
Divisions in society run deep. The European Super League saga united football fans in England across racial lines, across the class divide, across the sexes and bypassed club animosities. Where politicians have failed, football managed to bridge society’s gaps. It also showed that, when the will exists, fans have the power to drive change. A vibrant campaign that explores how homelessness, high rents, low pay, poverty, education disparity and disillusionment all fuel division, blame culture and cause racist, sexist and homophobic views to percolate. That would be powerful, because football is powerful.