How can Irish sport deal with the toxic side of social media?

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Opinion: The abusive comments on social media that happen when bigotry turns toxic cause huge problems for all sports

Sports organizations perform an invaluable function in Irish society. They promote positive physical and mental health and help young people develop important life skills and attitudes, the benefits of which extend far beyond the playing field. For the most part, these organizations depend on volunteers and amateur athletes who give their time freely because of their loyalty to their local clubs and communities, enthusiasm for the sport, interest in youth development, desire to give something back, and social enjoyment.

But that spirit of volunteerism is threatened by the dark side of social media, which Connacht GAA Council secretary John Prenty has called a “major cancer” that is causing enormous distress to athletes and their families. Similar sentiments were expressed by Kieran Leddy of the Munster GAA Council in January 2021, who said that “although social media has its positives, the unfettered ability of people, often acting under pseudonyms, to direct sustained abuse and ignoble against individuals and organizations, is undoubtedly a major disadvantage”.

In September 2021, following very harsh and personal online comments following the All-Ireland Senior Football Final, GAA Chairman Larry McCarthy spoke very strongly against what he called ” of corrosive aggression against civility”.

This phenomenon is not unique to the GAA and has also reared its ugly head at organizations such as the FAI, IRFU, Basketball Ireland and others, with players and officials all too often the victims of vitriolic attacks. Several Irish international sportspeople have recently told how they suffered racist or sectarian abuse on social media.

A recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Sport (May 11, 2022) heard that online abuse of those involved in sport is a growing concern. Mary O’Connor, CEO of the Irish Sports Federation, said that “there is no place for abuse in sport in any form – call it out, report it, stop it. now”. Of course, online abuse is not limited to sports and has been cited as one of the main reasons why more people (particularly women) are choosing not to pursue careers in public life.

What can we do to reverse this trend? At the most fundamental level, an appeal to common decency can help modify behavior. In March 2021, Ireland rugby players published a powerful Twitter video with the hashtag #BeKind, featuring children voicing the text of genuine insensitive tweets aimed at gamers. It ended with “you wouldn’t want your kids talking like that on the playground, so why would you say it online?”.

The Olympic Federation of Ireland and Ireland team launched its “Don’t Scroll By” campaign in 2021, urging people to take a stand against online bias and abuse by removing offensive posts, banning those who posted them and reporting them to the media platform social. Other sports organizations such as the FAI and IFA have imposed social media boycotts in the past as a show of solidarity with cruelly targeted players.

Sports organizations also have the power to take action against individuals who engage in inappropriate behavior. 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 not acting on behalf of the GAA. .Do not engage in trolling, bullying or abusive activities.” .

Rules 1.12 and 1.13 of the GAA Official Guide deal with racism, bigotry and protection of young people, while Rule 7.2 states that a member may be suspended or expelled for “misconduct deemed to have brought the Association into disrepute”. . This last rule has been invoked on several occasions when members have made misogynistic or disrespectful comments about match officials on social media. The FAI, IRFU and other organizations have similar provisions in their bylaws regarding the core values ​​of diversity and inclusiveness and penalties for misconduct.

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From RTÉ 2fm’s Jennifer Zamparelli, social media star Charlene Murphy on the online abuse she faced when her boyfriend Dano Mandroui moved from Bohs to Shelbourne FC

The media have a responsibility to temper the tone of online debate. While there is room for fair analysis and commentary, too harsh a scrutiny of players, match officials and administrators – especially those who are amateurs – is totally unwarranted. Harsh comments from former sportspeople in print and digital versions of major national newspapers are also challenging editorial and journalistic practices and raising concerns about the dividing line.

A major problem in prevention is that it is too easy to create fake social media accounts and email addresses, which means cowardly attacks can be carried out by faceless individuals. This needs to be regulated so that all online accounts are authenticated and traceable to actual living people, a measure that would not only address social media abuse but also cybercrime and online fraud.

The solution to this insidious problem must be multi-pronged, starting with a basic attitude change and zero tolerance

There are currently no laws in place to prevent someone 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 Offenses Against the Person Act 1997.

However, this legislation is quite cumbersome to apply. Extensive new powers for independent regulators are proposed under the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 and the EU’s Digital Services Act, but powerful EU lobby groups tech industry are strongly resisting the proposed measures. One thing is certain: we cannot continue like this, otherwise Irish sport and society as a whole will lose. The solution to this insidious problem must be multi-pronged, starting with a basic attitude change and zero tolerance.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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