How social media exists as both a positive and negative influence on the game
It may seem an unimaginable, distant memory given the current state of modern football, but there was a time when social media didn’t exist as a fundamental part of the game. It has become inescapable, with players, fans, clubs and businesses all utilising platforms to engage, invest and share opinions with fellow members of the worldwide footballing community. However, with a fresh influx of social media storms rolling in to remind us of its pitfalls, the reality is that it’s not always a welcome component of the sport.
Back in April I wrote about the idea of freedom of opinion within football, relating this concept to the crowded space that is the punditry business. However, this also applies to fans, as people believe they can say what they want; that their opinion matters. This is largely due to the increasing influence of social media.
Last week, in an interview with t-online.de, former Germany international Sandro Wagner had some choice words about social media. In fact, the 31-year-old disregarded the mass usage of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the like as “nonsense.” As a player who started his career in an entirely different era to those breaking into the professional game now, Wagner refutes the apparent necessity for social media at society and football’s core, while acknowledging that he is in the minority.
“I’m always presented like a Stone Age man, just because I don’t actively use this nonsense…Social media is a big evil for me,” he said.
While Wagner was more pointedly highlighting the dangers of social media for young people and its threat to society in general, football’s position as a reflection of wider society means that this is an apt connection to make – particularly with these views coming from a highly successful international footballer. Wagner has had a distinguished career featuring two stints at German champions Bayern Munich along with spells at Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim and eight appearances for the national team.
Wagner’s analysis of social media as a “big evil” can ring true in the worst of cases, as fans can verbally abuse players from behind a screen with the simple typing of a message and click of a button. In a recent interview with the Times, Manchester United’s Juan Mata spoke of the “unbelievable” abuse he has suffered recently. With a poor run of form both for himself and the Red Devils, the Spaniard said it makes him “angry,” emphasising that abuse, inevitably, is never too far around the corner.
“We have two options: to stick together or let that criticism and that enjoyment from others at our results affect us in a way that we divide ourselves. One weekend you’re an idol, you score the winner, and three days later you miss a big chance and you’re a villain.”
This, unfortunately, is the world we now live in. Social media, to be frank, is an echo chamber of opinions. Everyone has one – good or bad, praise or abuse. From the young, aspiring professional’s perspective it can lead to, as Wagner references, a sense of false grandeur. However, it can also land players in hot water. There have been various instances over the years, from the downright laughable — Joleon Lescott pocket-tweeting a picture of a Mercedes just hours after a 6-0 home defeat — to the potentially racist, as seen with the ongoing Bernardo Silva/Benjamin Mendy story. The latter of these two incidents in particular taught us that players are not exempt from blame and should be careful about what they post – the line between positive social media engagement and bad PR can be a very fine one.
In order to guide players on these issues, the PFA advises its members on the do’s and don’ts when navigating the social media minefield. On its website, the PFA urges players to tap into the world of social media and connect with fans while acting in a professional manner befitting of their role model status. The positives which the PFA detail are there to be utilised for the benefit of the players along with their clubs. These benefits include the ability to connect with fans, which is largely positive but can inevitably lead to issues, as well as “counteracting the complaint which is sometimes made, at least by the media, that players can be too far removed from the supporters.”
More recently, simple but effective use of social media among players has seen them use their platforms to engage humorously with fans and cool situations that have seemingly been blown out of proportion by the media. A case in point was the tweet by Mohamed Salah, poking fun at the media backlash that followed his and teammate Sadio Mané’s apparent row after the former didn’t pass to the latter in a Premier League game vs Burnley. The video Salah tweeted settled the furore, updated fans and gave fans an insight into the dressing room dynamic all at once.
At the very top of the game, the importance of social media is heightened further. With more success comes more fans; with more fans comes more people to virtually connect with. This is exactly the case for Cristiano Ronaldo, often dubbed football’s ‘social media king.’ Back in 2016 the Portuguese star became the first athlete to 200 million followers on social media, a number now well in excess of 350 million.
In the current climate, the influence of Instagram on the interactive media space is growing. Worldwide football coverage has a modern twist, as players, club accounts, businesses and fans are able to interact by sharing media content. BleacherReport — one of the leading social media content producers — is at the forefront of this movement, posting refreshing graphics to share news and stories in the game on their Instagram page on a daily basis.
With regards to clubs and their social media presence, increasingly accounts are following the lead of AS Roma’s approach. The Italian’s side’s Twitter account can legitimately be described as social media gold, leading the field in the game on this particular platform by not taking itself too seriously with witty tweets and sharp-shooting responses designed to thrill more than they are to inform. Following this lead are clubs closer to home like Bristol City, whose celebratory goal-gifs provide a way to showcase the personalities of players and establish a light-hearted, relatable virtual persona for fans to get to grips with.
There are arguments to be made for and against the excessive use of social media by all those associated to football across the globe. As the planet’s most popular pastime, it seems inevitable that as society becomes more and more obsessed with image and online conversation, social media will continue to run deep at the game’s core. Regardless, generally the positives outweigh the negatives. Social media is primarily a great force for good and there will always be users and instances that bring the validity of its worth in our game into question.
The necessity for the use of social media is seemingly apparent, whether we like it or not. What’s more, with football embracing game-changing technology which has taken the game on significantly in the past decade or so, who knows what sort of future we will be faced with in years to come?