Stan Collymore
Stan Collymore said Liam Stacey's Twitter message was grossly offensive

Widespread abuse by football fans of players of non-Caucasian descent has often plagued the beautiful game but it has taken an alarming new twist with a surge of online abuse - mostly on Twitter.

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has claimed that despite most of the foul and racist language in football stadiums being stamped out, it still seemed to be "socially acceptable" on Twitter.

He said before a Downing Street summit in February on tackling homophobia and racism in football: "The behaviour of crowds has been that something that was socially acceptable 20 years ago is now socially unacceptable.

"Unfortunately, it seems still to be socially acceptable on Twitter."

Manchester United captain Patrice Evra, former Liverpool and Nottingham Forest striker Stan Collymore, and Manchester City and England right-back Micah Richards have all felt the racist scourge of the social network.

That abuse eventually led Richards to quit Twitter after three months of constant racist attacks.

"It's a shame because he really enjoyed the interaction with the fans," his spokesman said. "But the messages kept on coming and he just thought enough was enough.

"He, like other players at the moment, had to face a lot of comments on a frequent basis. It's another timely reminder that racist abuse in football exists."

Former Spurs and Wolves striker Rohan Ricketts thinks that although he is on the receiving end of racist taunts on the micro-blogging platform, quitting is not the answer.

"I wouldn't have come off Twitter as Micah [Richards] did. When you put yourself in public eye then you open yourself up to people to take shots at you," he said.

"It comes in exchange for being famous. You need to understand that when you start on Twitter it's not going to be rosy always. You're always going get abuse, even from your own fans. My favourite saying is that 'elephants don't swat flies' and this applies to Twitter as well."

Prominent racism and mental health campaigner and ex-footballer Stan Collymore has reported a number of people to the police over abusive Twitter comments including Muamba heckler, Liam Stacey.

Following Stacey's offending tweets, Collymore replied to him: "@LiamStacey9 Your sick tweets have been passed on to the Police."

Collymore has recently taken to retweeting and "favouriting" offensive tweets as a way of making an example of the racists.

Ben Thompson, media and communications director at Macesport PR agency thinks that retweeting the offending tweets is the right strategy.

In an interview with a UK sporting website, he spoke about the social media strategy he employed for controversial footballer Robbie Savage.

"We decided very early on that as part of Robbie Savage's social media strategy we would challenge people sending abuse or making false accusations and it had a remarkable effect.

"Retweeting some of the vile abuse that Robbie receives on a daily basis highlighted to his following some of the disgusting behaviour that people were willing to post on a public forum and in true social fashion they decided to join forces and stand up to it."

Collymore has shown that something more concrete can be done: players can report the abuse to police as a racially aggravated public order offence.

Prominent sports lawyer Iain Taker said: "Where players experience racist abuse on platforms such as Twitter, there are potential avenues of protection open to them.

"The first, and most likely, would be to seek criminal proceedings by reporting the offence to the police for offences such as harassment and public order offences eg causing people to fear harassment. These offences carry additional punishments where they are racially aggravated.

"In addition, a person who uses Twitter in a racially threatening, abusive or insulting manner could potentially be guilty of incitement to racial hatred.

"Not all cases brought to the police will be prosecuted - the police may seek in suitable circumstances to give offenders a final warning under which any repeat offence would be prosecuted.

"A second area of protection revolves around making Twitter aware of the racial tweets. As the terms of service and use of Twitter prohibit abuse, notification to Twitter may result in the abusive user's account being permanently suspended."

Despite the large amount of good social media can do, it clearly has its drawbacks. Where people see free speech being its biggest strength, others abuse that freedom to attack those who have opened a direct line of communication in the hope of building a rapport with fans.

Perhaps if it is not obvious that racist, fascist and bigoted views are not welcome on Twitter -then a court order will make it plain.