TikTok, Trolls and My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

MAYA BOWLES recounts her experience of hate speech and homophobia on social media and in the football community.

During the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns across the world, the social media platform TikTok has exploded in popularity. In the first week of lockdown in the UK, installations of the app surged by 34%. To those unfamiliar with the app, TikTok is a platform in which users create and share short videos. The content of the videos ranges from dances, pranks and comedy to make-up and cooking videos. 

Lockdown has seen the rise of whole families creating their own TikTok videos. As households around the globe attempt to find some comedy amid the gloom of the pandemic, many TikTok videos have shown families turning their houses into restaurants, cinemas, bars, spas, theatres and concert venues. With the return of the Premier League on June 17th, I decided to turn my family house into a football stadium and create our own TikTok masterpiece. As proud supporters of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club, Saturday 20th June was a big day, because Brighton were playing Arsenal in their first match since the resumption of the season. Our video featured myself as a steward in a high-vis jacket, searching the fans (my parents, younger brother and next-door neighbour, who proudly donned their Brighton shirts) and ushering them into the ‘stadium’. At the end of the video, a staged scuffle breaks out as my boyfriend, an Arsenal fan, enters the stadium and is met with boos and chanting from the Brighton fans.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

We posted the video to TikTok, had a laugh and shared it with some friends, and then I left my phone as we watched the match. As soon as the final whistle blew and I picked up my phone, it was blowing up with comments, views and likes: our video seemed to be going viral! We couldn’t believe it, and amid the excitement of Brighton’s 2-1 victory and the numerous beers consumed during the game, we were in high spirits, constantly refreshing the video as the views went up exponentially. We laughed at the comments that called us ‘embarrassing’, ‘cringe’ and ‘sad’, shrugging them off as silly trolls and revelling in the elation of our fifteen minutes of fame. By 6pm, less than an hour after the game ended, we had hit ten thousand views.

As the evening wore on and the views increased, we realised that a lot of the comments we were receiving were homophobic. We were well aware of the kind of homophobic chants often directed at Brighton fans during matches (like ‘does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ and ‘we can see you holding hands’), as a result of the city’s reputation as the gay capital of the UK. But we were surprised by the amount of homophobic hate that was hurled at us because of an innocent comedy video.

It soon became clear that we had accidentally tapped into a cesspit of homophobic football fans, as reams of comments called us all ‘bent’, ‘sickening’, ‘fruitcakes and fairies’, and ‘proper benders’ who were the ‘definition of Brighton’. The most upsetting comments were those aimed at my younger brother, which included ‘first one looks like a bender’, ‘the kid doing bits for the Brighton fans stereotype’ and ‘Lukas mum and dad are deffo inbread to create him’ [sic]. By 11pm, the video had hit 50k views, but the excitement had worn off. We decided that in order to protect my twelve year old brother, we needed to remove the video. However, after waking up the next morning and discovering that the video had made it to Twitter and was on 225k views, we realised it was out of our hands. The Twitter video is now on 860k views.

Image courtesy of Maya Bowles

Living in my progressive Brighton bubble, I was shocked that this much homophobia still existed within the football community. Whilst I have always been irked by the occasional ‘we can see you holding hands’ chant, I naively believed that things were improving. The Football Association has done amazing work to stamp out racist abuse in football, but the same efforts aren’t being made to tackle homophobia. Research by the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall in 2016 showed that 72% of football fans have heard homophobic abuse at live games in the last five years. The fact that there are currently no openly gay male professional players in English football further highlights how much work there is to be done.

Our fifteen minutes of internet fame exposed us not only to the toxicity of online trolling culture, but also to the pervasiveness of homophobia within football. It is clear that this kind of behaviour needs to be monitored and disciplined not only in the football stadiums, but also on online platforms such as TikTok. Though the hate speech we see on social media is a product of prejudice within society as a whole, social media platforms undeniably amplify prejudiced voices. Since the the release of Jesy Nelson’s documentary Odd One Out, and the tragic suicide of Caroline Flack last year, there has been mounting pressure on social media platforms to tackle cyber-bullying and hate speech. As the current ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign sees a number of large companies boycotting Facebook for its lack of efforts to control hate speech, we are clearly in a moment of crisis. I am concerned, like many others, that heavy online regulation infringes on the democratic right to free speech. Nevertheless, there is undeniably a boundary, where free speech could be limited to protect against hate speech, even if that boundary’s place is unclear. What is clear, however, is that hate speech incites violence in the real world, and can also lead to long term psychological damage for its victims. 

Though my brother has a girlfriend, and shrugged off the homophobic comments about him, this experience will undoubtedly have a negative effect on his self-esteem. We are a group of straight people who were able to come out of this situation pretty unscathed. I fear for other people who have been targets of such homophobic online abuse. I also fear for the young Brighton fans who are questioning their sexuality, yet forced to listen to chants telling them that football is not where they belong.

Featured image courtesy of Action Images/Henry Browne.