Sport

We’ll tweet what we want

Football fans need to kick back against the social-media police.

The illiberal ‘you can’t say that’ culture that fuels the war on offensive terrace chanting has an evil twin: ‘You can’t tweet that.’ Liverpool FC is currently considering taking action against a fan who branded Muslim supporters a ‘disgrace’ for praying at half-time.

Liverpool fan Stephen Dodd tweeted a photo of two Asian supporters kneeling in prayer during the FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers, saying: ‘Muslims praying at half-time at the match yesterday #DISGRACE.’ Why was Dodd so upset over a public act of worship? Liverpool’s season is unravelling so rapidly you’d have thought that he’d welcome all the divine intervention his team can get. Dodd’s tweet provoked widespread condemnation on social media. Almost inevitably, he was also reported to the police – a symptom of our depressing grass-thy-neighbour society. Although the police decided that Dodd had not committed any crime – being a Grade A pillock is, thankfully, not yet illegal in this country – they referred the matter to Liverpool FC who have said they would consider taking ‘appropriate action’ against him. Now, clearly Dodd’s comments were insulting to Muslims. I’ve no problem with people taking Dodd to task over his tweet. But I do have a huge problem with football clubs policing what fans say on social media. It’s a simple but important principle that, in a free society, people should be able to speak their minds without fear of punishment.

This isn’t the first time that a football club has penalised a supporter for comments made on social media. A precedent was set in 2011 when Norwich City banned season-ticket holder Luke O’Donoughue for posting an allegedly racist tweet about striker James Vaughan. O’Donoughue’s tweet provoked a furious Twitterstorm which brought the matter to the attention of both the club and the police. Last year, Everton FC banned a supporter indefinitely for tweeting allegedly racist and homophobic comments about Malaysian ‘superfan’ Ric Wee. The club issued a statement saying: ‘Everton has a zero-tolerance policy on racism and homophobia.’ Blackpool FC has taken libel action against supporters for allegedly defamatory social-media posts about the club’s unpopular owners, the Oyston family.

I don’t agree with fans being ejected or banned by football clubs for singing offensive songs inside the stadium. But should football clubs penalise fans for posting inappropriate or offensive comments on social media? I don’t think so. Although I don’t agree with overzealous stewarding, a club is clearly within its rights to manage crowd behaviour inside its own stadium. However, telling fans what they can and can’t say on social media seems way beyond a football club’s jurisdiction. The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) is particularly concerned about the arbitrary nature of punishments handed out by clubs. FSF caseworker Amanda Jacks believes that supporters ‘should be afforded proper due process rather than be on the receiving end of a club acting effectively as judge, jury and executioner’.

Punishing fans for offensive tweets, far from silencing bigots, has the opposite effect – it amplifies the very sentiments it seeks to gag. Twitter, as we know, is full of socially inadequate no-marks who tweet before they think. If you go in search of offence, you won’t have to look very hard to find it, particularly if you’re a football fan. The insult-trading between rival fans has now spilled over from the terraces and on to social media. I’ve stopped visiting certain football message boards because of the poisonous trolling that passes for discussion. What should be done about the idiots who think it’s big and clever to spout bigoted drivel on social media? In my opinion, we should do nothing. That’s right. Ignore them. Rise above it. Of course you could have an argument but, to indulge them in this way, gives them the attention they crave. Ignoring them is far more devastating to the troll. Dodd’s tweet would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the offence-seekers who kicked up an almighty fuss about it.

It remains to be seen if Liverpool will take any punitive action against Dodd. Asif Bodi, one of the Muslim fans pictured at prayer, has said that he ‘wouldn’t want [Dodd] to be excluded from the ground’.  ‘He should be given a talking to or made to go on an awareness course or educating’, said Bodi. To be honest, both courses of action – punishment or compulsory re-education – seem equally sinister to me. It’s striking that no one seems to be questioning the right of football clubs to act as self-appointed Twitter cops. There’s also a less-than-delicious irony that the Je Suis Charlie brigade is conspicuously silent on the issue. What was Dodd’s supposed crime? To have a pop at Muslims. A few months ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, every bien pensant public figure was trumpeting their support for the right to lampoon Islam. ‘You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other’, proclaimed the UK’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. ‘We have no right not be offended.’  It was all a load of phoney posturing, of course. Will the Je Suis Charlies be waving ‘Je Suis Stephen’ placards if Liverpool dish out a ban for an anti-Muslim tweet? I think we all know the answer to that. If we want to stop football clubs policing Twitter, we can’t rely on politicians or journalists. We have to do it ourselves. To paraphrase the Yid Army, ‘We’ll tweet what we want’.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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