Richard Moore: Hamilton row highlights social media pitfalls

Lewis Hamilton found himself at the centre of a social media storm after posting a Christmas Day video. Picture: AFP/Getty
Lewis Hamilton found himself at the centre of a social media storm after posting a Christmas Day video. Picture: AFP/Getty
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W here were you when you clicked on Lewis Hamilton’s Christmas Day home video, and how long did it take for you to realise that he might have been better off not posting it on social media?

And what did you feel as you watched it? Sympathy for Hamilton’s dress-wearing nephew? Bemusement at the Formula 1 champion’s decision to share, with his millions of followers, a 13-second clip in which he made fun of the four-year-old? Or maybe you felt anger? Outrage? Brain-melting fury?

Oh, there was lots of outrage and worse. There always is. It’s as if a fourth emergency service swings into action and, believing themselves to be on the right side of the argument, feels compelled to exact revenge on behalf of the wronged party.

In response to Hamilton’s video, someone calling themselves Dan Dan Dan Dan Dan Dan Dan wrote on Twitter: “If my son wore a fairy outfit, and Lewis Hamilton shamed him and uploaded the video on the internet, I’d break his jaw.” (Pretty sure that Dan x7 meant Hamilton’s jaw, not his son’s, but Twitter isn’t always the place for perfect syntax. Plus, the Dans might not have been able to see what he was typing through the red mist.)

There was also humour. Dr Adam Rutherford: “You guys are really harsh on Lewis Hamilton. He may have avoided paying tax on a £16m private jet, and humiliated his nephew, but he did auction a pair of his own 2nd hand shoes for charity.”

That was funny – because it was true – but still, the Lewis Hamilton-shames-his-nephew-for-wearing-a-dress controversy followed the usual formula, sparking criticism that escalated into fury and righteous anger, leading to Hamilton apologising for what he called his “inappropriate” video. “I have always been in support of anyone living their life exactly how they wish and I hope I can be forgiven for this lapse in judgement,” he wrote.

A decent apology, as these things go, so should we just have left it there? No! Of course not. There is always one more act in a social media stooshie. In this case, eagle-eyed Tweeters argued that the sincerity of Hamilton’s apology was compromised by the fact that he had been ‘liking’ a lot of tweets from his fans saying things like, “Ignore the snowflakes, Lewis,” “PC gone mad,” etc.

I wouldn’t dare try to contextualise Hamilton’s video or attempt to add any nuance to the debate on Twitter, obviously. But one big problem was – and always is on this particular platform – that it was shorn of context, and so people added their own, which was Hamilton himself and his perceived crimes: tax-dodging, arrogance, lifestyle, Monaco, pierced nose, fancy watches, flamboyant outfits (talk about hypocrisy: shaming Hamilton for his dress sense for shaming his nephew for his dress sense).

Finally, I felt something I have never felt before – some sympathy for Hamilton. No doubt he sincerely thought he was having fun with, not making fun of, his nephew. I also feel sympathy for the four-year-old, who is now the central figure in a story that, for at least the rest of his childhood, will be only a click away.

Is that entirely uncle Lewis’s fault, or should the moral guardians of Twitter not share some of the responsibility? Of course you shouldn’t ridicule a four-year-old for what they choose to wear. But more harm is likely to be inflicted on that little boy by the ferocity of the backlash, not helped at all – not to let them off the hook – by the mainstream media publishing the story, complete with picture.

The shaming phenomenon was covered by Jon Ronson in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It dealt with ‘ordinary’ people who’d messed up and posted something deemed stupid or offensive whose lives had then been disrupted or even destroyed by the subsequent public shaming.

Professional sports people are public figures so they have to be particularly careful, but the Hamilton episode was a reminder of the pitfalls they face, and served to illustrate why so few of them post anything interesting these days.

But there are exceptions, and rather than keep piling on Hamilton, I thought I’d ask Twitter for examples of sports people who do it well. It was a survey probably as democratic as the Russian elections next year, but the suggestions came thick and fast: Andy Murray, pictured, Katie Archibald, Benjamin Mendy and Peter Crouch were popular picks, with Gary Lineker and Neville Southall the most popular of retired sports people (both are probably better known not for their tweets about sport but politics and social issues, with Southall particularly vocal on LGBT rights).

Murray shows a side to his personality on Twitter that he finds difficult to show in public: dry, self-deprecating and occasionally political (though trolling Donald Trump, a sport in which he has been partaking recently, must be safer than expressing support for Scottish independence, as he did on the eve of the referendum).

What the above sports people all have in common is that they are funny and don’t appear to take themselves too seriously – they still get abuse, but either ignore it or reply with humour or a deft put-down (Murray can put away a troll as effectively as he can execute a drop shot). Authenticity is the key – the good ones write their own tweets, thus avoiding the kind of situation the former Sunderland striker, Victor Anichebe, found himself in when he posted, or, rather, copied and pasted: “Can you tweet something like: ‘Unbelievable support yesterday and great effort by the lads! Hard result to take! But we go again!’”

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton has been lying low since Boxing Day. In response to his last tweet – the apology – were lots of replies with pictures of Hamilton in some of his more exotic outfits (a weary LOL). But on Friday he excised all his recent Tweets, including the apology, and deleted his Instagram account, abandoning his 6 million followers. In the future, he’ll maybe only tweet sponsor-approved ‘content.’ Oh well. Ultimately, and with the odd exception, we get the sporting Tweeters we deserve.