Dr Paul Reilly offers a warning: Be nice on Twitter, you don’t know who’s watching you
When Gary Lineker joined Twitter in January, a tweet from the official Match of the Day Twitter account asked followers to “be nice” to the former England international. While this may have been a reference to some of the negative comments made about Lineker’s moustache on the microblogging site a few months earlier, it also demonstrates how social media may be a double-edged sword for public figures.
While these sites do allow celebrities to connect with their fans and thus promote their “brand”, this contact with members of the public may not always be positive. Recently, sports stars such as Leicester City forward David Nugent have been subject to abuse from so-called “fans” on Twitter.
The abuse has not just been limited to the footballers. Hayley Gallagher, the wife of Foxes striker Paul Gallagher, received a torrent of abuse on the site after congratulating Blackburn Rovers on their recent win in the Premier League.
I believe that these incidents can be partly explained by the conversational nature of Twitter. The microblogging site gives the public access to the opinions of celebrities in a way that was not previously possible. However, public figures are unable to control how people interpret and respond to their tweets.
There are also a minority of Twitter users who appear to believe that they can say whatever they wish on the site without fear of repercussions in the “real” world, as demonstrated by the large number of Twitter users who broke super injunctions in May 2011.
However, it is perhaps easier to blame social media for anti-social behaviour rather than address the motivations of those involved.
My research on the use of social media to organise riots in Belfast suggested that riots would have occurred even if these sites did not exist. The same can arguably be said for footballers that were the subject of abuse from the terraces long before the era of Twitter.
Clearly, social media allows these anti-social practices to go viral in a way that has not been seen before.
Yet, the recent arrests of several people for posting racist abuse on Twitter about ex-Foxes star Stan Collymore suggest that people can no longer assume that they can say whatever they wish on these sites. It should also be noted that the vast majority of fans have tweeted messages of support to the footballers that have received abuse on the site.
I believe that one of Twitter’s main strengths is that it shines a light on anti-social behaviour and allows people to respond to them. While users should be free to express themselves on the site, they should also be aware of the consequences of their actions.
Dr Paul Reilly is a lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester.
This blog first appeared on the Leicester Mercury website