Social media and football on the front line in racism battle

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Errant Twittering can end in doing a bit of bird. That was the message yesterday as student Liam Stacey was led eyes down into his cell, ashen faced and contemplating life as a 21-year-old with no immediate future.


Stacey, an undergraduate at Swansea University, became public enemy number one thanks to what he insisted were a series of messages sent under the influence of alcohol following Wales’ rugby Grand Slam win at the expense of Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba , who lay stricken on the White Hart Lane turf having suffered a cardiac arrest.


“LOL , F*** Muamba. He's dead!!!” Stacey tweeted in the aftermath of the incident, which saw players and fans alike unite in their grief for the 23-year-old who was battling for his life.


Then followed a series of racially aggravated replies to responses Stacey received on the site, which ultimately proved to be his downfall as members of Twitter lodged complaints.


Charged for a ‘racially aggravated public order offence’ under the Crime and Disorder act, Stacey was handed a 56-day jail term for his messages.


"It was not the football world who was praying for him... everybody was praying for his life", said District Judge John Charles as he handed down his sentence.


He added that abusive remarks made to Stacey 'via a social networking site were instigated as a result of vile and abhorrent comments made as a result of a young man who was fighting for his life'.


The message was resolute and clear; Twitter, far from being a law unto itself or a barren wild west for the malicious to inhabit where accountability for actions is non-existent, is now being kept in check.


There is a certain amount of hysteria surrounding the issue of abuse and racial abuse on social networking sites - it appears to be the current hot potato if Prime Minister David Cameron's recent talks on the issue with ex-pro's such as John Barnes are anything to go by - but such was the emotional out-pouring that followed Tottenham and Bolton’s F.A Cup quarter final tie that Stacey's comments were never likely to go unpunished.


For some time the internet been a nigh-on impossible place to police, a lawless grey battle zone caught between the right to free speech and surreptitious identities that mask the identity of any one of the million ‘trolls’ out there.


At times Twitter gives the impression it is inhabited solely by the mad and deranged; a cesspit of noxious opinions and insults that one can only hope isn’t a reflection of wider society.


Particularly amongst football supports it would seem race is the main source of contention, an issue flooded to the surface by high profile incidents involving Luis Suarez and John Terry this season.


Former Aston Villa and Liverpool striker Stan Collymore has often been cast as the social network crusader for racial equality, outing those who still hold audaciously out-dated opinions while being a lighting rod for racially aggravated tensions.


Just last week another student - dispelling the myth that racism is the preserve of dyed-in-the-wool members of a previous generation - was in court over racist abuse he had sent to Collymore.


Joshua Cryer, 21, was handed a two-year community order and told to pay £150 costs for his vile tweets, which he insisted were a feeble attempt to ‘snare a celebrity’.


It was with depressing inevitability that no sooner had Stacey and Cryer been handed their punishments that Collymore was re-posting messages sent to him over his attempts to shine the light of publicity on racist abuse.


“lol you n****r f****t, good thing it's not a hate crime over here (yet) to call you the mongrel that you are. cry about it!” went one message sent from a user in America yesterday, who then continued his abuse in a string of messages.


Sadly this is not a new problem. Two teenagers were given final police warnings for abuse directed at Newcastle’s Sammy Ameobi last month while the Department for Culture, Media and Sport say there have been more than 2,000 prosecutions under section 127 of the Communications act which covers public messages on sites such as Twitter and Facebook over the past year.


Laws are in place to prosecute the abusers but with 35 million users on Facebook in the UK alone - ‘an internet within an internet’, as MySpace vice president Dan Stephenson puts it - but the sheer numbers involved mean it is almost impossible to eradicate the problem properly.


If there was any positives to take from Stacey’s imprisonment – the fact that his hopes of becoming a forensic scientist but will miss his final degree exams tempers the joy of his sentence somewhat – it was that his punishment was driven by outraged users who wanted to out him.


Most Twitter and Facebook users have come across mindless abuse before but the sorry story is that most tolerate and forget it almost immediately. Twitter themselves admit, almost laughably, that they have no moderation in place to deal with abusive messages, something a parody Gary Glitter account exposed late last year.


If these sites are to rid themselves of the curse that blights them change must come from within, as is true in all walks of life. The fact users acted in the aftermath of such a galling and emotional incident is a start, but now the accepted every day abuse must be tackled and no longer accepted.


French philosopher Voltaire once said of the notion of free speech: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” - a maxim democratic countries pride themselves on for the most part.


The malicious regularly exercise their right to speak their mind in vile and vindictive ways while hiding behind this defence. Now the right-thinking and sane majority must exercise their right to speak out against the small minority and hold them to account, or see the game and sites they hold so dearly to their heart further blighted and diminished.

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