Events moved quickly, as they do in cyberspace. Channel 7, taken aback, removed the image from its site. Its instinct was fair enough, but the response was not. Effectively, it meant the mob had torn down Harris’ image, as surely as if setting it alight in a public square. If visitors to the Louvre decided that the Mona Lisa’s smile actually was slutty smirk, and said so loudly, would security remove the people or the painting?
It was a low moment. But it was followed by a gratifying, even inspiring, one. Within hours on Tuesday evening, another, bigger popular uprising had forced Channel 7 to restore the image before midnight. It was shared widely and spread quickly. By Wednesday morning, the footy world – the world at large – had massed behind Harris and against the trolls. They were exposed for the creeps they are.
And yet, still it was one mob beating back another. The enlightened far outnumbered and outweighed the medieval, thankfully. It turned out for the best this time, but who is to say it always will? We are trusting in the primacy of good over evil (and I do mean evil). Everyone, including Harris, said “something” had to be done to control the trolls, but no one could say exactly what.
The AFL got caught in this vacuum. For the peak body, at what may prove to be an historic turning point, it was slow to react. Chief executive Gil McLachlan said he was glad that the footy industry and public had spoken with one unanimous voice. But when asked what action the league might pursue, he said that in the social media sphere, the only options were self-regulation and personal accountability. The league was helpless.
To a point, that is true. But when Adelaide’s Eddie Betts was racially abused yet again on social media last month, the AFL moved with alacrity, saying it would sool its integrity unit onto the task of identifying the abuser and if possible banning them.
That was one miscreant. This time, there were hundreds, possibly thousands. On the AFL site alone, there were more than 5000 comments, good and bad. Curating content on social media is difficult enough, monitoring and moderating social media commentary harder again. All acknowledge this.
But if the AFL learned anything from the miserable Adam Goodes booing saga in 2015, it was that in the face of a mindless mass movement, merely hoping for it go away is not an option. Since, the AFL has been pro-active in confronting racism. Sexism is no less a scourge, and since the advent of AFLW, very much the AFL’s business to address.
At the end of this particular day, the trolls made fools only of themselves. Even without the controversy, Willson’s portrait of Harris would stand as an towering and iconic image of women’s footy. Now it is historic, too. Dare we say it, a picture paints out a thousand turds.