David Owen

This is a column about power and how social media has - and has not - disrupted the circles in which it resides.

An ex-England footballer turned sports broadcaster, Gary Lineker, has been much in the news in Britain these past few days.

This followed his posting of a tweet severely critical of the UK Government’s asylum policy.

The matter escalated after the BBC asked Lineker to "step back" from presenting Match of the Day, an iconic Premier League highlights show, until an agreed and clear position on the presenter’s social media usage was reached.

Many key colleagues then decided to step back in solidarity, reducing the programme to a pale shadow of its usual self.

The storm appeared to blow itself out yesterday, with an announcement of a review of the broadcaster’s social media guidance, along with Lineker’s return to hosting duties on Saturday (March 18).

Sports figures such as Lineker are among the most popular users of Twitter, the platform that still consistently generates the sharpest debate on issues of the day.

As of yesterday, the former striker had 8.8 million followers. 

This compares with 61.8 million for the Brazilian superstar Neymar, 18.1 million for Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and 7.1 million for Pau Gasol, the former basketball player who is by far the most-followed current International Olympic Committee member on Twitter.

Gary Lineker was forced to stand down from presenting duties with BBC Sport at the weekend after a tweet criticising the UK Government's asylum policy ©Getty Images
Gary Lineker was forced to stand down from presenting duties with BBC Sport at the weekend after a tweet criticising the UK Government's asylum policy ©Getty Images

In other branches of celebrity, actor Tom Hanks has 15.9 million followers, singer Adele 27.6 million, and writer J.K. Rowling 14 million.

Big stars often use these immense, globe-straddling audiences that sit literally at their fingertips primarily for image-building and straightforward commercial-marketing purposes.

But if and when their comments start taking a political turn, it can seemingly make traditional power-wielding elites a little bit edgy.

You can understand why - while United States President Joe Biden has an enviable 29.9 million Twitter followers, even a national leader as prominent as Emmanuel Macron of France is not far ahead of Lineker in the Twittersphere at 9.2 million followers.

Brazil’s Lula is down at 7.4 million - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 1.9 million. My local Member of Parliament scrapes by with under 10,000 Twitter followers, in spite of being present on the platform for well over a decade.

Yes, you certainly can understand why traditional power-brokers might get a little bit edgy in the face of such pulling power, but then one thinks, "Come on, are things really so different from pre-digital days?"

I mean, how many millions were watching as the revered football manager Brian Clough told interviewer David Frost in the mid-1970s about his dyed-in-the-wool Socialism and how he liked listening to Labour leftwinger Michael Foot?

Social media or no social media, no athlete in recent history has created anything like the political stir that erupted back in 1967 when boxer Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the United States Army.

Digitisation has enabled one important innovation compared with analogue days - interactivity.

Brazilian Neymar, who plays for French team Paris Saint-Germain is one of the most followed footballers on social media ©Getty Images
Brazilian Neymar, who plays for French team Paris Saint-Germain is one of the most followed footballers on social media ©Getty Images

When politicians criticised Lineker’s comment, he was able to respond promptly and directly when he deemed this necessary.

The shareability of social media also means that, while many of his follower-base may know little and care less about the events of recent days, awareness of his comment will have spread far beyond those who actually follow him.

The nature of the medium, in other words, makes it unruly and difficult for traditional power structures to control.

Sports personalities’ followings are also interesting from a political standpoint in that they consist - by definition - chiefly of people who are there for the sport, a proportion of whom are likely to fall into the category of swing voters.

Having said that, the situation veered towards crisis last week for the BBC not because Lineker has 8.8 million Twitter followers, but because his immediate colleagues liked and respected him enough to back him to the hilt.

Will any of this amount in the end to more than another fleeting front in the UK’s interminable culture wars?

The test will be to revisit issues raised in a year or two’s time in order to take note of what, if anything, has changed.

Will BBC broadcasters be freer or more restricted in their social media usage? Will the UK Government’s new asylum policy be rendered more humane? Will the Conservative Party’s hold on power appear more or less precarious?

There is something of a precedent in the way that another football figure, England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, took up the cause of free school meals for children during holidays with some success.

I suppose in the end I am sceptical regarding the extent to which sports personalities’ enormous social media followings might help them to usurp real power from the usual channels, even supposing this were their goal. Perhaps occasionally, over specific, well-defined issues, for short spells of time.

What the likes of Rashford and Lineker do seem to have achieved with some aplomb in a miserabilist, mean-spirited age is to transform themselves in a certain measure into the nation’s conscience.