Trent Alexander-Arnold: Social media abuse I faced hit my parents hard
At the Olympiyskiy, as Trent Alexander-Arnold searched out the stands and saw his parents desolate, he used every inch of resistance to stem a tide of tears and a collapse to the turf.
Liverpool had lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid in Kiev, but the right-back’s major concern was that his mum and dad - Diane and Michael - lost an opportunity of celebration after all their sacrifices for his career.
When he went on to conquer England, Europe and the world as a core part of Jurgen Klopp’s machine, Alexander-Arnold would point out that the success belonged to them rather than him.
And so as we recount a taxing season in which Liverpool navigated the worst to finish in the Champions League positions, with the 22-year-old suffering horrid abuse on social media, it is unsurprising that he speaks about the impact it has had on his family rather than himself.
“After the loss to Real Madrid, I received a lot of racist abuse online and although I wasn’t that affected by it, I know that my parents really were,” Alexander-Arnold tells The Independent.
“These are the people that brought me into the world, that want to protect me, and they read these things and feel helpless as they’re not able to stop it from happening.
“Targeting people because of the colour of their skin, because they look different is disgusting. It really shook the people around me and hit their hearts.”
Alexander-Arnold is peeling through a largely ignored element of online abuse: the devastation it can cause to so many more than the recipient.
Professional footballers are provided with tools to help them drown out the noise, have club psychologists readily available to assist them, and become accustomed to fielding toxicity on a global scale.
Still, they are human and most are not immune from the constant stream of online hate.
While Alexander-Arnold has learnt how to build a concrete bubble around himself, his family have not been conditioned to do so. There are no tools for those attached to high-profile targets of abuse.
“People forget that we are normal, we have loved ones, we have families that have to see and deal with all these nasty things,” he says.
“I’m around professionals every single day and from my teenage years, I’ve watched how senior players handle the abuse they receive and their techniques to block it out. Over time, I’ve developed my own coping habits based off that, but my mum and dad haven’t had that kind of preparation.
“It hurts them and it’s hard for them to ignore the horrible stuff that gets directed at me.
“I’m the type of person that doesn’t go scrolling through my comments and messages so I don’t seek out negativity.
“Sometimes you open whatever social media account and it’s just there - you don’t have to look for it. The racist ones are most noticeable and unacceptable. I’ve built up such a barrier to not let this stuff affect me because it can have such a big effect. But just because it doesn’t impact me as much as it does another player, doesn’t mean it’s okay to target me with abuse.
“It impacts my parents and that it worse than it getting to me. Online abuse is just not on, in any shape or form.”
Much of the toxicity Alexander-Arnold has encountered this season is sourced around Liverpool’s fall from all-dominating force to crawling over the top-four finish line.
The fullback’s displays were directly hampered by the injury crisis at centre-back and the absence of Jordan Henderson’s covering when he was tasked with sparking the team’s offensive play.
As the Merseysiders nose-dived without stability through their spine, so too did Alexander-Arnold’s numbers and his creative influence.
Naturally, given his form over the previous two campaigns, Liverpool had anticipated that the opposition would try to shut his flank down and signed Thiago to generate greater chances through the middle.
That evolution was scuppered by the raft of injuries until steel was added to the team when Fabinho returned to anchor midfield and Nathaniel Phillips partnered Ozan Kabak or Rhys Williams at the back.
Alexander-Arnold’s assists and key passes since March fuelled Liverpool’s drive for Champions League football - Alisson’s unforgettable goal would not have occurred without his delivery - and Klopp admitted “without Trent’s game, we would be in a different place.”
The dip did however see him surrender his England spot, with uncertainty over whether he will make the final cut for the Euros. The debate over his selection has been another welcome mat for poison to appear on Alexander-Arnold’s feed.
How does he ignore it? “As humans, I think in general we want to impress as many people as we can - it’s just in our nature,” the Scouser says.
“But it can be very unhelpful, especially when it comes to performances because it’s just your team that knows what was asked of you in specific matches and situations and how you did it.
“So the best advice I ever received and that I can ever give to focus on the opinions that truly matter.
“I play for two teams, and essentially, only two people really make decisions on me: Jurgen Klopp and Gareth Southgate. So, within football, these are the only two opinions that massively matter as it impacts whether I am selected or not.
“If a million people think I shouldn’t play, but Jurgen thinks I should, which holds more power? If a million people think I should be selected for England, but Gareth doesn’t, I won’t make the squad.
“It’s a case of really boiling it down to who holds sway in letting me play or not and the performances I put in to influence their decisions.”
There is a greater sense of assuredness and authority emanating from Alexander-Arnold, an offshoot of player empowerment which has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic.
One of its successes was pushing for a four-day boycott of social media platforms, which forced the government to intensify efforts over the Online Safety Bill; a piece of legislation that can financially harm the likes of Twitter and Instagram for not overseeing a cleaner online environment.
“The main message we wanted to get across was that we’re not just going to tolerate the abuse and we want something done about it,” Alexander-Arnold said.
“The unity was important, because it showed we believe in this as a collective force. Government pushing the legislation shows it was a success because holding the social media platforms accountable for what is published on them is overdue.
“We can talk all day about how negative and toxic it can be online and how much we hate it, but until there’s actual consequences, there won’t be any difference. So we need the people in powerful positions to clamp down on it with law.”
Ironically, the social audience footballers have cultivated has been a reason they feel more emboldened to stand up for themselves and causes that matter.
“I think the action that you see comes down to us having more power than previous generations,” Alexander-Arnold says.
“I can say what I want to, in my own words, to millions of people at the click of a few buttons. I don’t have to rely on speaking to someone else, who may change the meaning or tone of my message.
“So many more people that are more engaged with what we’re thinking and what we stand by, that it can drive such positive change in the game and in life.”
Now if only the online sphere could be filled with more hope than hate.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was speaking as part of BT’s Hope United, which will rally the UK to tackle online abuse as part BT’s commitment to digitally upskill the nation. To find out more about how you can play your part, watch BT’s Tech Tips at bt.com/hopeunited. Together we can beat online hate.
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