Dina Asher-Smith on the toxic trolling of sportswomen
For the past four to five months I’ve had Twitter uninstalled from my phone. I only reinstall it when I have some work to post, to support the Black Lives Matter movement, or when my friends are competing and I want to celebrate them publicly. That’s it.
Twitter has become a bit too much for me. To maintain my peace, I decided that it needed to be gone. Previously my social network of choice, I surprised myself with the complete 180-degree turn, but it had simply become too much. And, honestly, saying goodbye has worked wonders.
In the background of my decision was the tragic death of Caroline Flack. I was shocked and horrified when I heard the news, and I still am. She was such a recognisable figure. When I went on to my Twitter feed, I saw that a national conversation had begun around the effects of cyber bullying and social media onslaughts, and particularly on vulnerable people.
I remember seeing tweets, comments and articles swiftly deleted, and then people asking, “How were we meant to know she was so vulnerable?” But is that even the point?
Then came the pandemic. They have been extremely difficult circumstances for us all, but I just kept seeing too much harrowing information. Many – myself included – felt utterly powerless. The death tolls continued to rise, heartbreaking information was coming from hospitals and care homes. The never-ending stream of bad news was tough to take in.
The final straw was the prolonged trolling of a YouTuber called Nella Rose. When her father tragically passed away from coronavirus people doubled down on their onslaught and bullying. After seeing that, it was too much. I signed out.
In the past few weeks there have been yet more examples that have made me want to write this column. When TV networks announced that they were making changes to longstanding presenter and pundit line-ups, former England footballer-turned broadcast er Alex Scott was linked with the roles and immediately bore the brunt of angry, vile, sexist and racist tweets.
Privately, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time consoling friends in our sport over upsets brought about by social media comments. Thoughtless, throwaway comments at best, but callous, hateful words at worst.
With no major championship to aim for, this year has largely been left to athletes and their teams to navigate without a blueprint. Some were able to maintain a sense of normalcy over lockdown, and have managed to compete.
Athletes such as Mondo Duplantis, who just set a new pole vault world record at 6.15m, Laura Muir, who remains unbeaten over 1500m this year, or Jemma Reekie, who won the Rome Diamond League 800m, are in incredible shape.
Others may not be in the shape they are used to.
From an athlete’s perspective, having up to four months away from a track, gym, coaches, physiotherapists and training partners, while doing strength and conditioning sessions in a back garden, is definitely going to impact performance.
For athletes competing in field events, and requiring a shared pit or mat at a big centre such as Loughborough’s HiPac, the challenge has been even greater. How do you avoid spreading Covid-19 when people are landing in the same space, over and over again? The answer is to limit availability. For sprinters and hurdlers there were also struggles around equipment, waiting for regulations to ease on the use of blocks and hurdles.
Others may be quietly injured, or on the verge of injury, a result of the changes forced upon us by the pandemic. To then see callous comments about body image, weight-shaming, jibes about performances not being where they usually are, and pejorative tones about an athletes’ choice of competition location has understandably left some feeling upset and embarrassed. We have all, as a society, been in completely new circumstances. We are learning to navigate these in our own way, and we have to make decisions with long-term interests in mind.
Everyone is human. And everyone should be kind. But when it comes to high-profile figures and social media, many tend to forget. Whilst no one is above valid, measured and respectful criticism, malicious and inconsiderate trolling is unnecessary.
I’m an optimist, and I believe that people don’t intend to hurt others, they simply throw comments on to the internet without thinking that the subject will ever read them.
Who prepares athletes for this?
Or, more broadly, who prepares those in the public eye for this? High-profile individuals have never been more “accessible” as they are today. Yes, in many aspects that is amazing. It means greater profile for sportswomen, and there are more ways to be in touch with fans. Truly, the vast majority of interactions online are overwhelmingly positive. But there is a significant proportion that are not so nice.
We have to create a solution for this. Celebrities coming off social media for periods, turning off comments, blocking messages, hiding keywords and deleting accounts is not the way forward. For me, behavioural change is the only solution.
All of us have to look at ourselves and reflect on what we post, interact with and click on. I include myself in that.
So, before you put something out there, does it need to be said? If the person who posted it was to read it out loud, verbatim, to the subject, would it be embarrassing? Would it be uncomfortable? Would they cringe?
Then ask yourself, is it necessary? Remember that everyone is human. Be mindful. Be kind.
No one is above criticism, but everyone should think before posting online
In the firing line: Alex Scott, Caroline Flack (below left) and Nella Rose (below) have all been the target of Twitter abuse