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'I was told to kill myself about five times, that I should be shot and that was over nothing'

By Chris Jones

Trending on RugbyPass

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James Haskell knows all about the dangers of social media abuse which has seen rugby join football in taking a stand by instigating a four day boycott of all platforms to highlight the problem. After receiving death threats and a torrent of abuse, the former England flanker has words of warning for those players chosen for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa this summer.

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Haskell managed to upset a section of the British farming community by reacting to complaints that his dog was off the lead in open land during a walk. He was reminded by critics of the number of dog attacks on livestock and that his actions were unacceptable. “I was told to kill myself about five times, that I should be shot and that was over nothing,” explained Haskell, who won 77 caps and toured with the 2017 Lions in New Zealand.

Typically, the former England flanker fired back but now realises it was a pointless exercise and it was a reminder that while social media can be a useful tool it can also lead you down a dark alley and he regrets making that error. “Stupidly, I gave it back to people and lowered myself to their level and I lost out. You cannot engage with it and everyone is perpetually offended and society is outraged about everything. It is a horrible world and don’t engage because you will never win

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“I know that the Rugby Football Union has never experienced the abuse that followed the fifth-place finish in the Six Nations. The vitriol, hate and personal attacks – they have never seen anything like it.”

Haskell provided an insight into life with the Lions in New Zealand with his videos of room mate Sean O’Brien, the Ireland flanker, hugely popular along with his “bromance” with fellow England international Owen Farrell.

With the Lions facing a five-week tour to South Africa this summer that will see the 36 players having to spend extended periods in “bubbles” in Pretoria/Johannesburg and Cape Town due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, social media will, inevitably become a factor as they seek to find ways of killing time. Haskell said: “I created content on that Lions tour but knew what was acceptable and what wasn’t and I wanted to give the fans something.

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“People still talk about the videos with Owen and Sean and letting people see behind the scenes is amazing but you have to be careful. If Kyle Sinckler falls through the table tennis table then that is worth putting on. If Sean O’Brien is teaching farming songs then the world needs to see but if he was to cartwheel naked across the room then they don’t.

“I was an early adopter of Twitter and I saw the benefits but it is a mad construct that if you are in the public eye you deserve to get abused. For young rugby players it is a necessary evil because of the benefits of promotion and if you don’t have a social media presence how do you promote sponsors and connect with fans?

“If you don’t need to promote on social media then don’t bother because it will affect your mental health as it brings the worst out of people.”

England football manager Gareth Southgate wants his players to ditch social media during this summer’s European championships to avoid race hate and abuse. The stand taken by football and other sports with a four day boycott of social media was prompted by a lack of action from the tech companies to stop the abuse. Haskell believes rugby also has to face up to the problem and added: “ Everyone gets abused online and football has it worse because it is a far bigger game and rugby is niche but you get the same stuff.

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“The bigger issue is that identity on line is masked and people have completely lost the plot and there is no context. There is a mob mentality and it is important to stop people being anonymous online and I don’t know why it isn’t done.

“I am a 36-year-old man and fell foul of the trap of allowing people to abuse me and not ignoring it. The lesson I learnt if you come down to their level it is win, win for them and lose, lose for you and kids have to understand that you need a thick skin. “

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'I was told to kill myself about five times, that I should be shot and that was over nothing'

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