k(l)ick safe: cyberbullying and football

Katrin Separator February 10, 2021

Jessy was born with the FC Bayern gene. The 22-year-old, who is originally from Poland and now lives in Germany, has been following FC Bayern games since she was a child, often together with her father. The older she got, the more her interest in the club grew – today she never misses a game of her favourite team.

Jessy has been active on various social media for about ten years. Her Twitter account in particular revolves mainly around football.

“I don’t have many football fans among my friends, and if I do, they’re fans of HSV, so it’s quite good to get to know other Bayern fans this way,” she explains, adding that she also likes to exchange views with supporters of other clubs.

“Whether it be supporters of Gladbach, Dortmund, Schalke or Leipzig, my timeline is now quite colourful,” says Jessy. “You learn things about other clubs that you might not otherwise do and get out of that Bayern bubble a bit.”

Like Jessy, Sophia has been a diehard fan of FC Bayern since childhood – and uses the Twitter platform to discuss football and Bayern with like-minded people.

“It’s very easy to strike up a conversation with others,” says Sophia. “And best of all, there are specialists on every issue. Some are very knowledgeable about transfer rumours, others have a very good understanding of tactics or shed light on the economic perspective of football.”

Sophia also has a private account on Twitter, but she does not want to use it for football discussions.

“I made a conscious decision to keep the areas separate,” the 19-year-old explains. “In hindsight, it was probably a wise decision.”

Girls and young women are disproportionately victims of cyberbullying

Despite the many good things Sophia and Jessy experience on Twitter, both have already been victims of cyberbullying – and thus fall precisely into the group that experts say is particularly at risk on the internet, girls and young women.

“According to many studies, girls are affected by cyberbullying slightly more often than boys,” confirms Birgit Kimmel, the head of the German internet awareness center klicksafe, which is embedded in the European Commission’s strategy “Better Internet for Kids”.

“So far, the explanation has been that women and girls use social media more often and more intensively than men and boys,” she says. “This also has to do with their interest in communication. Women and girls are also often insulted in connection with their appearance. These insults often have a sexual connotation as well.”

Add to this the component of football, and girls and women who publicly express their opinions on social media are particularly vulnerable, because despite a lot of progress in recent years, football is still considered a male domain.

Sophia has often experienced other Twitter users becoming abusive because she dared to criticize an FC Bayern player.

“It’s hard to be a woman, too,” she adds. “I have stopped counting how many times someone has told me that my opinion is irrelevant and that I should stay in the kitchen. A lot of girls are also called ‘fake fans’. Supposedly we only watch football for the good looking players. With the poor internet connection in our village and the resulting bad video streaming quality, I often can’t even tell the players’ looks.”

Moreover, Sophia says that people are becoming less respectful of each other, especially on social media.

“Again and again you hear, ‘that’s just my opinion’. Freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic right, but even this has, I think, limits. And this is reached when pure hatred is disguised as opinion.”

Insults, incitement and death threats

Sophia had her first experience of cyberbullying while still at school, yet she finds the situation is becoming increasingly toxic, especially on Twitter.

“As soon as you have a rather unpopular opinion, you’ve kind of lost, especially when accounts with a large number of followers get involved,” she says. “Coalitions form very easily there, and usually the opposite side is bigger – even if you’re innocent. I know a lot of people who got death threats and insults and verbal attacks against the family.”

Jessy also became a victim of cyberbullying six months ago – although she personally rarely experiences people denying her her understanding of football because she is a woman. In her case, it was because Jessy had a disagreement with a single person, but it did not quite take two hours for more than 50 people who had nothing to do with the original matter to get involved.

“They felt it was extremely important to insult and threaten me for no reason,” she recalls. “It became a bit much for me. There are strangers going at you, attacking you. All you want at that moment is for it to stop. I took a Twitter break afterwards.”

During that break, however, Jessy realized that she had met too many great people on Twitter that she would not want to part with – and that the others are not worth giving up on them, nor are they worth letting the unpleasant things get too close.

Sophia says of her experience that it made her feel very bad and helpless.

“It’s like the whole world is against you,” she explains. “And no matter what you say about it, it doesn’t stop. On the contrary, making a statement about it usually makes it worse. People make fun of you. But how am I supposed to laugh when someone says I should hang myself? I’m not ashamed to say that I cried.”

Hatred against players

Cyberbullying is of course not exclusively aimed at girls and women – boys and men are also affected, as well as public figures. In football, this is primarily the players, but often also the coaching team or the referees.

“For many fans, football teams and individual players are part of their identity, sometimes even their role models,” says Birgit Kimmel. “In the same way, opposing teams or individual players become the enemy. People often look for someone to blame for a lost match, who then gets to experience the angry frustration of the fans. For the individual players, these are very difficult and hurtful assaults that are often directed ad hominem, e.g. a person’s ethnicity, religion, and much more, i.e. the person as a human being and not just a player.

This in turn can lead to great emotional stress for players, which also manifests itself in mental and physical symptoms, she explains.

“No one can cope with such attacks alone, everyone needs help here, because you can’t deal with it alone. Those affected need support from confidants or professional counsellors, as well as the support of the club and the team, who have to back their players up.”

Unfortunately, some recent examples have already shown that this does not always work. For example, the then 23-year-old Sardar Azmoun resigned from the Iranian national football team after he failed to score a single goal at the 2018 World Cup and was bullied online for it.

Former Melbourne Victory player Josh Hope of Australia hung up his football boots in November last year at the age of 22 because he could no longer cope with the constant cyberbullying he faced. And former England youth international goalkeeper Ted Smith ended his career at 24 because of too much pressure and cyberbullying.

Even the players of FC Bayern are not immune to attacks and hatred on the net. If their performance is not considered adequate, a scapegoat is always quickly found. Today it is the defender who could not prevent the goal against, tomorrow it is the striker who could not convert the decisive penalty or missed a sitter.

“Football is quite emotional, but unfortunately many people don’t know the limits,” says Jessy, adding that many people find it easier to vent their anger and frustration on the internet because they do not have to reveal their identity there.

“For me, there is often a lack of humanity. It’s heartbreaking to see what week after week, day after day, is written about and directed at individual players. Do these people think that their messages won’t be read? Or is there a conviction that there will be no consequences? Some of the things that are written about people online are simply disgusting.”

Sophia specifically mentions the case of David Alaba. The Austrian, who will in all likelihood leave FC Bayern in the summer, is criticised by many for the way he deals with this fact in his public communication. Others accuse him of being too greedy for his own good. On social networks, however, this “criticism” very often gets out of hand – many become abusive.

“What can be read in the comments under his posts, even from Bayern fans… I’m honestly surprised that he hasn’t deactivated them yet,” Sophia said. “It’s one thing to say he’s a shadow of his former self at the moment. But to racially insult him, that’s totally unacceptable. He is still a player of our club, and, above all, a person with feelings.”

Cyberbullying in the pandemic

In times of COVID-19, cyberbullying has escalated even more.

“According to a recently published study by the ‘Alliance against Cyberbullying’, there has been significantly more cyberbullying in recent months,” says Birgit Kimmel. “With corona, not only […] social contacts are shifting to the internet – but also bullying.”

For Sophia, on the other hand, COVID-19 is one of the reasons why, despite cyberbullying and the ugly sides of social media, she has never seriously thought of saying goodbye to it completely.

“Internet friendships are not to be underestimated, especially during the pandemic when you feel alone more often than usual,” she explains. “There are still enough good and respectful people to make Twitter a nice place to be. The bad ones just stick out more.”

Jessy also has no thoughts of turning her back on the many nice people she has met through social media.

“Social media has its downsides and you have to learn to deal with it, but for me the positives outweigh the negatives,” she says. “Sometimes it gets too much for me, then I take a break, but then it’s good again.”

Jessy believes that you should organise your online activities in such a way that it remains a predominantly good experience: “After all, in real life you avoid people you can’t do anything with as well, if you can, so why not on social media? Twitter in particular offers a lot of options, you can block users and even mute entire terms. At the end of the day, they are strangers, and everyone should decide for themselves what they can tolerate, what they want to read.”

As in real life, a little self-criticism does not hurt on social media, Jessy thinks, and includes herself.

“I also sometimes catch myself doing things that I criticize others for. So I suggest: Start with yourself and deal with other people the way you want to be dealt with by them, and eliminate the obnoxious stuff from your social media experience to the extent Twitter allows you to.”

What to do if you become a victim of cyberbullying?

Sophia says that it helps her personally to talk to her parents and other close people when she is subjected to insults or hostility online.

“After the initial anger and pain fades, I try to move on rationally,” she says. “The consequence I have drawn is this: I cannot project my own actions and expectations onto others. I, too, am far from perfect and have my faults, but still I try to always be kind, even if it’s hard for me because I don’t know what the person on the other end of the screen is going through.”

Birgit Kimmel advises those affected to use all the technical options offered by platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to protect themselves.

“With the right settings, everyone has basic protection,” she explains. “If the service provider doesn’t help – i.e. you can’t report it or block it – then users can also turn to the two internet complaints offices in Germany: http://www.internet-beschwerdestelle.de and http://www.jugendschutz.net/hotline/. They can help in many cases, especially if content is to be removed.

Even if you are not affected yourself, says Birgit Kimmel, it helps the victims of cyberbullying, who often receive little support, if you stand by their side.

“Many people see that someone is being bullied but don’t act, also because they are afraid of becoming victims themselves,” she explains. “Users who observe cyberbullying can speak out on the spot and demand respectful treatment instead of keeping quiet. The more who side with the victim, the better.”

It is important to defend oneself in a non-violent way and not to counter with making insulting comments yourself, says Birgit Kimmel.

“Bullying harms people, often for a long time afterwards. It must not be tolerated and must be stopped – as quickly as possible,” she demands. “It may be that there are even more affected users, and they may be encouraged if they see others receiving pushback for (cyber-)bullying. Everyone must realize that it can get worse if nothing is done.”

You can find more information on the topic at https:/www.klicksafe.de/themen/kommunizieren/cyber-mobbing/

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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