Antagonistic journalism and the complaints about its inevitable response 0

So what came first, the anger or the provocation?

The topic du jour in football land is Twitter trolling and a high-profile journalist published an article this morning which described some of the bilious hate he has incurred across social media.

Regardless of what you may think of that particular person, he’s right: it’s not acceptable for people, whoever they are, to be threatened or intimidated purely for expressing an opinion.

Whenever this topic comes up, the protagonists are always portrayed in the same way: friendless little virgins who are hiding away in their parents’ basement and taking revenge on the world one tweet at a time.

That’s rather an outdated perception. While the garden-variety troll still loiters under many a bridge, the online environment is now more complex than that.  Beyond the angry teenage sociopaths, there are now many other classifications of social media menace.  In addition to the typically offensive racists, homophobes and anti-Semites, there’s now an entire sub-section of online personalities who seek to ridicule others, to brand them as one thing or another, and who work to ensure that everyone either agrees with them about everything, or is ridiculed for failing to do so.

Maybe that type of trolling isn’t so obvious and maybe it doesn’t feature quite as many capital letters, expletives or exclamation-marks, but it’s equally malevolent.

The point is this: we live in an age in which everybody thinks that they’re right about everything and at a time when compromise and reasoned debate are becoming archaic.  Twitter is an environment in which it pays to shout the loudest, accuse the most often, and snark as much as possible.

It’s a wasps’ nest and everybody knows that.

Football journalists have a tough time online.  The game is emotive and club loyalties inspire an almost uniquely fierce brand of partisanship, therefore it’s almost impossible to write about the sport and not experience animosity at one point or another.

The nature of the industry inspires jealousy, too.  It must be great to work for The Times, The Telegraph or any of the other big newspapers and to be paid to go to matches.  A lot of supporters covet that lifestyle and so envy is never far from the surface.

When irate fans rage against the latest opinion piece, a lot of them are taking umbrage with the name in the byline rather than the sentiments in the text.

“He should be sacked for writing that…!”

And replaced by, let me guess, you?

It must be very wearing.  The most prominent writers in the country generally have upwards of 50,000 Twitter followers so, on the average day, imagine how much badly-reasoned, oddly personal abuse they face.  Of course they deserve sympathy and of course there should be a retaliation against those who don’t respect the boundaries of civil discussion.

That goes without saying.

But, at the same time, don’t be naive.  Anybody who has spent any more than an hour in a forum, a comments section, or any other kind of online football debate, knows exactly how sensitive this community is.  They will know, for example, that any negative opinion expressed about a team, no matter how benign, will - by some - be reflexively kicked against.

“Tell me that my team’s forward isn’t worth what ‘we’ paid for him, and I’ll tell you how much of a clueless, hopeless, talentless bastard you are.”

A lot of journalists are innocent victims of that bubbling vitriol, but - as the internet has grown - many others have tried to take advantage of it.  Just as tenuous transfer-stories are a quick and easy way to grow page views, there is similar value in provocation and in locating a supporter’s pressure points and repeatedly stamping on them.

The more outrageously negative and ill-reasoned an article is, the more well-read and shared it will generally be.

Nobody should ever receive death-threats or be physically intimidated for expressing an opinion, but there’s a degree of compliance here.  Writers and journalists can grow their own profile by being inflammatory and they can short-cut their way through the industry with constructed, antagonistic opinions, but there is a price to be paid for doing that.

Say a friend of yours is mugged in a rough part of town.  He recounts the incident with incredulity, telling you that his gold watch, his £500 phone, his designer sunglasses and his £100,000 sports car have all been stolen.

Do you have sympathy for him?  To a degree.  But he surely also appreciated the risks of brazenly flashing his wealth in such an area.  He has been wronged, but he has put himself in a position to be wronged.

By telling him to be smarter, are you advocating the crime itself?  No, you’re simply pointing out that he should have known better.  He should still go to the police, the theft should still be prosecuted and the criminals should still be punished.  His naivety doesn’t excuse the robbery, but it does part-explain why it happened.

That analogy doesn’t fit every instance of abuse directed at football journalists.  There are many, many reporters who dutifully go about their job and suffer unjustifiably at the hands of the game’s mouth-breathing population.  There are others, though, who figuratively swagger through that rough part of town with their middle-finger in the air, taunting everybody in sight.

Eventually, that person is going to feel some kind of response and, when he does, he won’t really be in a position to complain about it.

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