The surest sign of the significance of social media in the revolution in Egypt is that the regime moved so quickly to disable it. Could the dramatic impact of social media in world affairs be replicated in some way in the less serious world of sport? I think it could.
Social media activity has caused minor controversies in sporting circles in the last couple of years, such as when junior British tennis players had their funding withdrawn after photos appeared online depicting “unprofessional behaviour”. More recently, any number of athletes have attracted criticism for undiplomatic tweets, such as footballer Jack Wilshere complaining about refereeing earlier this week.
But these are generally trivial. There have been few examples of the kind of mass activism in sport that social media can help to facilitate. I suspect that it may be only a matter of time.
So what sporting issue might inspire a major protest?
Football club ownership and management frequently riles supporters. The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, whose objective is to gain a significant level of ownership of the club, claims over 160,000 members. They have already made their presence felt through their green and gold scarves and shirts.
Elections for sporting leaders generate interest and controversy but they are unlikely to capture the public imagination. Perhaps a more likely reason for a mass protest is a controversial decision in an important match.
The Cricket World Cup is about to get underway and will stir passions, particularly in the host countries of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Big domestic and international football matches also inspire very strong emotions.
Fans have always vented their anger through whatever means and media are available to them. However, occasional public campaigns to overturn judging decisions taken on the field of play have rarely yielded results.
One notorious example was an Australian rules football match in 1967 known as the Goalpost Final. The crowd invaded the pitch in protest at a crucial refereeing decision right at the end of the game and tore down the goal posts, preventing a kick being taken which could have changed the result. The match was abandoned and a couple of days later the governing body decided the match outcome was “no decision”.
If fans feel strongly enough that they have been wronged, social media provides useful tools for organising a campaign. The other essential ingredient is for fans to believe that their action could change a result. As has been seen in Egypt, once the movement has real momentum, it can be unstoppable.
For sports governing bodies and rights-holders there is now an even greater incentive to ensure that their judging procedure and appeals process stand up to scrutiny.