Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham believes social media abuse could spill over into the stands when fans return if authorities fail to take appropriate action.
The Gunners this week launched a new action plan entitled #StopOnlineAbuse which includes the creation of a new task force aimed at helping players and staff cope with discrimination.
Several Arsenal players including Granit Xhaka, Hector Bellerin, Eddie Nketiah, Willian and Nicolas Pepe have been targeted this season while manager Mikel Arteta admitted in February that the Spaniard and his family were also victims.
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The UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport are seeking to accelerate the introduction of an “Online Safety Bill” which will include measures to punish tech companies for allowing harmful or illegal content to be displayed.
The Bill is expected to be introduced later this year. Fans are set to return to stadiums for the first time in more than a year at a reduced capacity from May 17, providing the government’s prior test events are successful. The first such event is expected to be the EFL Cup Final between Tottenham and Manchester City on April 27.
A Tottenham fan was banned for four years and fined £500 for throwing a banana at Gunners captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in December 2018, and when asked whether the timing of Arsenal’s initiative was important given a desire to avoid further abuse from the stands, Venkatesham said: “We haven’t seen anything material on that so far.
“But underlying all of it, that has to be a concern — we all know where football has been in this country previously and the progress we are all delighted we have made. So any tiny, tiny step backwards concerns all of us because we know where we have been in the past, so in terms of normalisation that is why I am so keen we find a way to stamp it out and get it back under control.
“But obviously the online world has an interaction with the physical world so if we do finds any of this abuse tracked back to and Arsenal member or an Arsenal season ticket holder obviously we are going to be taking action against them where we can there — that goes without saying.
“Whether it comes from someone who claims to be an Arsenal fan or isn’t an Arsenal fan, whether these people actually exist or they don’t or whether the information they are telling you is true or not, I just don’t know.”
The Premier League introduced an online abuse reporting system last June and Venkatesham revealed that several tech companies have already reached out to Arsenal following the announcement of their new action plan on Tuesday, aiming to help improve a process which has left him frustrated by previous incidents.
“Sometimes you will see some really, really prompt action,” he said. “You will see the content that’s out there being taken off immediately and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you are sitting there thinking ‘explain to me why this content hasn’t been taken down immediately. What is this process we need to go to?’
“It is a bit mixed. I’m really not here to beat up the social media companies, in many ways they are a real source for good, but I do think there are ways we should be collaborating, working together more closely around some of these mechanical [aspects] to [determine], if this abuse comes up, how we can get it down as soon as possible.
“I think we are getting to a point where there is such a strength of feeling about this. You happen to be talking to the chief executive of Arsenal today but you could be talking to any of the other 19 clubs in the Premier League and you could be getting a very, very similar message that people recognise this is getting a little bit out of control and we need to find a way to stop it. If we don’t, we are on a really, really dangerous path.”
Venkatesham also revealed the club have not ruled out the possibility of banning social media from the training ground at London Colney following former striker and all-time leading goalscorer Thierry Henry’s decision to quit all platforms due to a lack of action over abuse.
“I would say on this issue, probably the best phrase to use is ‘nothing is off the table’,” he said. “I don’t think we have seen any issues at Arsenal that I’m aware of about a player’s mental preparation for a match being affected.
“Most of the abuse as you have seen from all the examples that are well publicised seem to happen just after a match where someone is unhappy with what happened in the match and decides that they are going to upload this view of vitriolic abuse at somebody. It doesn’t really affect the pre-match preparation stuff because it generally happens straight afterwards but there’s lots of different ways that people have chosen to deal with these issues.
“Thierry is a good example. He’s chosen to take himself completely off it. We’ve taken a different approach which is to try and use the following we have to drive this message.
“This isn’t something that can be solved by Arsenal or solved by football. It’s about trying to get all of those stakeholders around the table together to make some positive change.
“After being a bit doom and gloom around this issue, it’s hard not to be, I’ll try and add a bit of levity which is that I do think that there are signs for optimism and I do think I’ll be holding on to those green shoots and hopefully in the coming months we can make some progress.”