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Social media blackout actually hurt women's rugby

By Stella Mills
Scotland v Wales – Guinness Women’s Six Nations – Scotstoun Stadium

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Picture this, it’s Tuesday morning, you turn your phone back on after a weekend of boycotting social media and what a shock, nothing has changed. Trolls are still rife on the internet, seemingly unharmed by the actions of thousands of sports fans.

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Two weekends ago individuals were encouraged to boycott all social media platforms in an attempt to show solidarity against abuse and discrimination online.

The main aim of this protest was to encourage social media companies to take a stronger stance against racist and sexist abuse by users. In women’s rugby, we get our fair share of this so I can understand why the community was so keen to show support and get involved. However, I have mixed feelings towards this.

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Andy, Jim, Fez and Shanks react to the 2021 Lions squad:

This boycott was clearly well-intentioned, but when evaluated against the context of the growth and development of the women’s game I would argue that this silence came at a cost.

Ironically, when Twitter descended into darkness, so did the England V France game. As England’s Bryony Cleall crashed the ball into contact with sixty-two minutes left on the clock, the stadium descended into full darkness. Disappointingly, a full pitch wide blackout left the game abandoned.

The worst part about it all? The game was incredible, it had everything a rugby fan could dream of, high tempo, brutal physicality, and a truck load of intensity. Proper edge of your seat stuff.

Following the controversial end to what was a genuinely exciting game, I looked down at my Twitter feed, expecting to get stuck into a flood of comments and conversations; to see nothing.

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The silence was deafening, in all the wrong ways.

Something massive had happened in the women’s game, and the fans had no opportunity to discuss it. If I was hesitant about the social media blackout before, now in amongst a full pitch blackout, I was fuming.

To be clear, I am not criticizing people for taking part in the campaign. I am, however, questioning its overall effectiveness. To make change, and I mean real long-lasting change, meaningful action must be taken. Surely by going silent for three days on social media, whilst an absolute corker of a women’s match is being played is doing the complete opposite?

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The uncomfortable question you must ask yourself is who are you doing it for? Who truly benefited from the silence? Women’s sport, and specifically women’s rugby can not afford to go quiet. We do not have the luxury of a fully developed fan base. Each match is a constant battle to gain increased and consistent viewership to grow the game, and social media’s role in this cannot be underestimated.

Various platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok have proven to be essential drivers of change in women’s sport. The fact that my whole Twitter feed was silent when one of the juiciest things in women’s rugby had happened was just astounding.

A recent study by the Women’s Sport Trust found that over 50 per cent of women’s sport fans use social media to follow the sport. Meaning half the fans consume content digitally via social media, so what exactly do you gain from shrinking an already small audience and depriving them of the opportunity to engage with the sport?

To those who say the game was still available to stream on BBC iPlayer I would argue that yes, the game was still available to watch, however its full impact was not felt. Moreover, the game was once again difficult for sports fans to locate on the streaming service. Something that had been a reoccurring issue throughout the Six Nations Tournament.

I am not alone in my thoughts as world cup winner, Tamara Taylor, sums up the argument perfectly in her tweet below:

Other organisations such as Happiness Is Egg Shaped also decided not to take part in the social media boycott:

No one should be subjected to online trolling; it is vile, and something I would not wish upon anyone. I am in full agreement that action needs to be taken to tackle the problem, however the course of action that was taken in this instance should have been different.

We need to come together as a sporting community, just as we did on the weekend, to actively shout about these issues, thus putting pressure upon social media platforms to directly tackle the problem in a positive and strategic way. More importantly, this needs to be done in a way that is not detrimental to the development of women’s rugby, or in fact any other women’s sport.

The momentum of this campaign cannot be understated, it was felt on a huge scale. The challenge now will be to transfer this energy into perhaps a more positive direction to implement long lasting change.

To do so, online abuse needs to be met head on. On a small scale, individuals can actively report and block accounts. Looking at larger scale action, an open letter to social media platforms such as Twitter would be a starting point. If we can capture the energy that was exhibited this weekend in the right way, imagine what could be done.

Above all, the women’s rugby community needs to keep talking, we must continue to be vocal about our sport and showcase the real talent that we, and the wider sporting community, have to offer.

Unfortunately, trolling is all too common in the sporting world, especially when it comes to women’s sports. However, becoming quiet and abstaining from talking about the sport you love is not how you beat the bully; it only serves to give them more power. In fact, I would argue that being silent is one of the worst things you can do.

Growing up, I was always taught to stand up for what I believe in, even if it meant going against the crowd. So, on this occasion, that is exactly what I will be doing. I will continue talking, writing, and shouting about women’s rugby, because eventually the right side will win. Silence is not, and never is, the answer.

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Social media blackout actually hurt women's rugby

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