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Is internet trolling simply replacing the violence we used to see on the football terraces?

“The use of trolling by football fans towards players, officials, opposing fans, owners, media figures, and even their own team’s fans is on the rise, and simply replacing the violence we used to see on the terraces” writes Neil Graney.


In the mid 1970’s the Punk movement had made it way to England from the United States - a youthful rebellion, which settled roots in local scenes across the UK, avoiding the mainstream thinking on what youth should aspire to be, how they should dress and how they should act. A golden age for British music - The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, and later in the 1980’s, The Smiths.

With a major presence in working class areas the movement quickly became symbolic of the protests against the Thatcher government, which came to power in 1979. The years that followed saw unemployment rise to over 12%, and over one million working days lost to the strikes as part of elongated battles with coal mining trade unions. Ultimately, this created nationwide poverty within the working classes, whilst the inequality between classes grew wider.

This era coincided with some of the darkest days in regards to football violence in the UK. Inspired by the non-conformist approach of the punk movement, and the strength in number and power of the trade unions, football fans saw football as a way to fight back, or at least to a way to fight. A distraction, a form of escapism from high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

Whilst football hooliganism in the UK today bares little resemblance of the 1980’s, there is evidence around the world that football violence is linked heavily with political unrest, war, oppression and religious and cultural tensions.

Violence in football is also commonplace by sections of fans around the world, which use football as a way to promote ideologies, which discriminate against other fans, based on nationality, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and religion.

FC Barcelona Win La Liga Photo by Nicolò Ongaro/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Because of its social impact, football hooliganism has become a well-researched area in the academic literature. One key finding is that football violence, and football fandom in general is linked to social and self identity. If you have watched films such as ID, The Football Factory and Green Street, they all have one thing in common. They bunch together people from all kinds of different backgrounds, but all have football (and violence) in common. The aggression, the violence, becomes part of that social identity.

In a more literal sense, Donal McIntyre’s brilliant undercover documentary with the Chelsea Head-hunters in 1999 proved the accuracy of the films. Again, people bunched together from very different backgrounds, living out their self and social identities around football and violence.

Thankfully, the authorities have been able to stamp out much of the more serious violence between football fans in the UK. However, this tribalism of football fandom is, of course, still very much alive and well. As fans we show our colours, we demonstrate our passion, we enjoy the escapism of live football. When we attend away games, we are more vocal, because we are different, we are the minority, like the punk rockers of the 1970’s, we think differently, we form our own identities, which is intrinsically linked to our football club. We signal allegiance to our club and are derogatory about our rivals. It’s pretty much the norm!

Since the inception of the Internet in the early 1990’s we have seen four key developments stages in the digital revolution. Stage 1 lasted well into the noughties - the Internet was a key information source, we started to ‘search’ for new education and understanding, and eventually the Internet was platform for self-expression. Those of a certain age would have told your online friends about your music preferences through MySpace, and you’d send a message to your friends on MSN messenger, instead of paying 20p a text.

Getty Images

In stage 2 the internet changed radically - you ditched your yellow Ethernet cable, and the emergence of online discussion forums and communities were quickly replaced with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and later, Instagram.

In stage 3, we saw the rise of ‘influencers’ – individuals were given a global platform, a voice to influence others to make purchases or think differently. Viral and user generated content was quickly becoming a key source of information for marketing teams, as capitalism reaped the benefits.

Stage 4 has seen a further development of online word of mouth, the escalation of self expression. However, as a society, we have also become aware of its impact.

The Internet has become a tool of great power. Institutionally, governments are influencing and interfering in elections across the globe, media outlets and political parties are using platforms to spread ideologies and at times, ‘fake news’. On an individual level we have to acknowledge growing problems in relation to online bullying, politically motivated threats and violence, and ‘trolling’.

At the same time, the disruptive nature of the Internet and its rapid advancement has led to theory development such as ‘the internet of things’ – simply put, the social thirst to use technology, and the Internet in everything we do. Our communication, shopping, socialising, consumption of media, how we consume live sport, the list is endless.

You see, the Internet is also fast becoming the most popular place for football fans to display self and social identity, their allegiance of their team.

How many of you mention your football team in your bio, but don’t mention your partner and kids? Twitter bios in particular are awash with symbolism around football allegiances and a key indicator of social identity most important to people as individuals. Football clubs, along with other sport organisations, brands and athletes have realised this is a key opportunity to gather information and foster meaningful relationships with their ‘followers’. At the same time, organisations, and individuals have found it very difficult to deal with Internet trolls, the keyboard warriors.

CD National v Suderland - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

So how do we define a troll? Online trolling is the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose. An academic paper entitled ‘Trolls just want to have fun’ found similar traits in trolls as they found in narcissistic type individuals – an over obsession or admiration of themselves as an individual.

Academic research has also referred to trolls as displaying traits linked to ‘Machiavellianism’ in the psychology literature, where individuals are so focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and even exploit others to achieve their goals. As touched upon earlier, these goals often have no apparent purpose, other then to cause upset, disruption and chaos for those on the receiving end of those behaviours.

Recent research in Australia looked to psychologically profile ‘trolls’ for the first time. When we think of intellect, we think of brainpower, knowledge and qualifications, but we do not often think about emotions and social relationships. Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Social Intelligence (SI) are actually intrinsically linked to our self-identity and our physical and online presence.

Simply put, EI considers how affectively we control and display our own emotions, but importantly, how we consider, adapt to and support the emotions of others around us. Our levels of social intelligence helps us understand how well we form and maintain social relationships with a variety of people, either on or off line.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research in Australia found trolls displayed low levels of emotional and social intelligence. This paper provided a further definition of trolling:

Trolling is the deliberate provocation of others using deception and harmful behaviour on the Internet which often results in conflict, highly emotional reactions, and disruption of communication in order to advance the troll’s own amusement.

The paper also linked the traits of narcissism and Machiavellianism to trolls and explained how they lacked cognitive and affective empathy. In other words, they cared little about the affect their actions may have on others. Finally, results showed trolls showed signs of trait psychopathy and sadism; they employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognising the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions.

Sadists, eh!

The use of trolling by football fans towards players, officials, opposing fans, owners, media figures, and even their own team’s fans is on the rise, and simply replacing the violence we used to see on the terraces.

Trolls will now make online death threats, they will threaten violence, they will bully, they will discriminate, and generally be abusive. Interestingly, they will attempt to hijack a discussion through harassment or inflammatory content, hoping to provoke an emotional response.

A final paper entitled “Don’t feel the trolls” suggests a zero reaction approach to trolls. It suggests that given the traits they display, they see counter argument, (even when its balanced), emotional reactions and actions such as blocking and reporting as a moral victory, which fuels their behaviour. They will go on to brag to others, even when blocked or reported.

So, if like me, you use social media to consume sport, interact with players, other fans, and officials and display your self-identity and club allegiance - just remember, there is always someone on the receiving end, and if you spot a troll, don’t feed them!

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