2023 ODI World Cup: Understanding the psychology behind fans' abuse on social media

Even as they are on top of the world after winning the title, several Australian players and their families were at the receiving end of abuse and death threats on social media.
The image of Australian cricketer Mitchell Marsh with his legs on top of the ICC Cricket World Cup trophy which sparked an outrage among Indian fans. (Photo | Instagram)
The image of Australian cricketer Mitchell Marsh with his legs on top of the ICC Cricket World Cup trophy which sparked an outrage among Indian fans. (Photo | Instagram)

CHENNAI: When Glenn Maxwell pulled Mohammed Siraj to the deep, ran two, hands aloft, punching the air in delight, in front of 92,000 thousand fans under the night skies of Ahmedabad on Sunday night, he had become a part of history. His teammates ran in, amidst the deafening silence of the crowd, a better part of it had already left predicting the result, at the Narendra Modi Stadium, rejoicing Australia's sixth World Cup title.

Jumping into the huddle of celebration was Travis Head, who played the innings of his life — a 137 in the final against India. They had created a memory that would stay for eternity. At that point, little did they know what was unfolding in their social media comments section. Head, the Player of the Final, had already started receiving abuse on his account for taking apart the Indian bowling attack. The abuses came in different languages, predominantly from anonymous accounts,  for scoring against India, asking him to get out, to be banned from the IPL, and so on. But it did not stop there. Under a picture of his wife and a one-year-old daughter came the death and rape threats.

Meanwhile, Maxwell's wife Vini Raman, an Indian-origin Melbourne-based pharmacist, had received abuses in direct messages and comments for not supporting India. So much so that hours after her husband and country won a World Cup, she felt the need to put out a statement. "(I) can't believe this needs to be said but you can be Indian and also support the country of your birth…where you have been raised and more importantly the team your husband + father of your child plays in #nobrainer. Take a chill pill and direct that outrage towards more important world issues," she wrote on her socials.

Imagine being on the top of the world. You are having the best moment of your lives with your families after being crowned as champions at the biggest tournament of the sport. And yet, you and your family are being threatened and abused on your personal social media handles by anonymous accounts, which are fans of your opponents. Kind of sucks the joy out of winning, doesn't it?

Sports psychologist Priyanka Prabhakar tries to explain what it could make the players feel. "When it comes to family, anyone can be threatened and feel like 'why is my family targeted?'. Basically, that fear is there, even though they have won, they could be feeling scared and sad that this is the way our win has been taken into consideration. People might say 'you can ignore', but it does have an impact no matter what you do. It has a negative impact, it is really sad," she tells this daily.

The abuse did not stop with the Australian players either. Several Indian players, including Mohammed Siraj, who was inconsolable after the team lost, too, were at the receiving end of abuse in the comments section of his social media posts. 

Now, this phenomenon is not something new. In a country like India where cricket is treated as religion and cricketers are demigods, this has become a routine at this point. Whenever the team loses, or a player performs badly in an important match, they are being abused on social media. And this comes from the fans who actually celebrate them and the team when they do well. The fans who actually say these things might not explicitly react the same way to another person in real life or those cricketers when they get a glimpse of the stars they so worship.

Priyanka feels that the extreme reactions come from a position of powerlessness. "In psychology, we do talk about fan psychology and you can become so blind and you do not know how to cope with the loss so you end up harming the other people. They wanted something to happen in a certain way and because it is not happening they do not know how to cope with a situation so it is like 'Oh if that person wasn't there, playing for the team, we would have won'.

"It is very confusing, right? Fans really identify with their sports team quite a bit. We are projecting our own fear, and sadness onto other teams, it is mainly that. We are feeling powerless, we really wanted to celebrate and make sure that we win, but then the match outcome was something very different, so it is basically a way of gaining control over the situation. And honestly, sometimes what also happens is when, as people, they are collective and want something and it could be a way of grieving the situation. Grief, especially when it is collective, can be extremely painful. We do not know how we are behaving. We may not really use our thoughts and logic properly because we are so emotional about the loss that we just feel that this is the way to go about it and handle the situation, sometimes it also ends up happening," she explains.

While acknowledging that the way fans respond online cannot be controlled, Priyanka feels that the first step for them is accepting the fact that the team lost and understanding that hurling out abuses will not win the match. "It is all based on emotions, they do not know what they are thinking, they are thinking 'I need to express this immediately'. I think we need to understand what impact it has on the other side, right? First is acceptance and second is taking responsibility in the way we want to treat the other team. Because they are going to be coming and playing here, we are going to create an unsafe environment for the sports ecosystem if we do this. Somewhere our behaviour can also create a lot of fear in the players.

"We are telling that if you come down here, this is the way we are going to respond. We do not know what kind of impact it has on them because right now, their families are being targeted for winning the World Cup. So, I think we need to feel safe first of all and I think it also comes down to safety and connection is what I feel as a psychologist. Fans are feeling unsafe because India did not win the World Cup, and when we feel unsafe to get back to safety. We have seen with football if one of the European teams has lost, they also engage in duels, there can be conflicts, violence and sports stars have actually come and apologised saying, 'I am really sorry for what my fans did etc'. Right now, what is happening is we are basically targeting a particular sports team thinking that our emotions are happening because of that particular sports team and by doing this, we are in some way giving away our own control to the sports team. A sports team is not always going to win. And at the highest level, we cannot predict which team is going to win right. It is going to be such a close contest, they have come to win, and we have gone out there to win. We can't really predict who is going to perform how."

How can one create awareness and cope better with such heartbreaking losses rather than abusing players from their own team and opponents? Priyanka says that taking charge of the situation and understanding that it will settle down and pass by is the first step. "It is such a sensitive issue. I think it is so important for us to encourage positive fan behaviour. I think sometimes what happens is when the crowd becomes unruly even when someone is taking charge and telling them 'You know what this is not what we need to do’ That can actually help a lot of people. It is basically pro-social behaviour. Taking responsibility and accountability for our own behaviour, it has an impact on other people, creating a safe environment and understanding that in sports people lose, teams lose and the other team wins. Of course, we have invested emotionally quite a bit for our favourite team but despite that, I think taking the result in stride, irrespective of what happens, is extremely important so that the opponent team and their families feel safe.

"I know fan identity is very high, especially for a game like cricket in India. We really worship it, it can be quite intense but at the same time, certain behaviours can cause a lot of harm to other people. Fans continue to have their identity even after the match is over, out of that group loyalty or blind love, they would want to get back at the situation. Remember to have the identity as a fan during the game, at the same time when your emotions are peaking up, remember that they are humans as well. You do not have to be so identified with the whole situation. Drawing boundaries and remembering that you do not really have to always identify (with the sport). Switching on and off with the identity can also help people. Learning to manage their emotions, talking to a friend or having that positive social community that they can reach out to could also help. At the same time, we can focus on giving support to players and family. That is very important because so many of these things are way beyond their control, and we do not know what the fake accounts are writing and how many genuine accounts are actually writing to them. It is a very stressful situation even for the opponent team, they need support as well. Especially, when we are backlashing and not really supporting them, they really need the support. Making sure that they get their support also from their necessary resources, becomes important."

"We need to understand that we are all in this sporting ecosystem together. We cannot isolate an opponent team because they have won, because by isolating the winning team, they are also isolating the losing team. Somewhere we really have to take responsibility for our actions and behaviour but if we do come across others not engaging in rightful behaviour, I think it is important to voice it out. We are harming someone here and that is not really fair," said the Bengaluru-based sports psychologist.

Sport is and will always be an emotional factor in the lives of the fans. So much so that most of them have their mental health riding on the way the team they support performs. While it is inevitable, what they might want to remember before clicking on the send button on social media to react in an extreme manner is that it is just a sport. That it too shall pass. That when their favourite team takes the field the next time they will still be rooting for them. That they can show a little empathy as they rejoice in their team's moments of glory.

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The New Indian Express