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Dr Tony Xia gamed fake news and post-truth to establish good faith at Aston Villa

Xia dismissed journalism as rumours, he can’t do that anymore.

Aston Villa v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

It all started with a tweet. That was the first sign of what was to come. A bleak premonition that we could do nothing about. A single tweet was all it should have taken for us to identify and combat the current ownership situation of Aston Villa. It was all laid out to bare there and then, on the 26th of June 2017. Responding to Matt Scott’s tweet of a Financial Times article (detailing restrictions on foreign investment by the Chinese Government, a situation that may have caused a lot of Villa’s current frustration), Villa Owner and Chairman Dr Tony Xia disputed Scott’s journalistic credentials, before falling into a short tirade of embarrassing name-calling.

Firstly, Xia quote-tweeted Scott’s exclamation that Villa fans should keep an ‘open mind’ in regards to their board and ownership by calling Scott a ‘jerk and not really a journalist’. Scott responded, somewhat calmly, by adding that he’d be surprised if Villa were trading with Xia at the helm within two years, stating that he fears that he is right. Dr Xia shot back by asking that when Scott is proved wrong, would he rather be named as a jerk, or a ‘jerknalist’.

Matt Scott isn’t the most-liked writer among Villa fans. He’s not even the most celebrated writer in the wider world of football. Many supporters, myself included, would dismiss Scott’s further opinions on the matter. A lot of criticism aimed at Xia in the first year of his takeover of Villa was rooted in xenophobia. The synecdoche ‘The Chinese’ was used a lot, Orientalism formed a basis in reviews of the ownership situation. There was a lot of focus on a nebulous group of businessmen from ‘the East’ taking control of European football clubs, and a lot less of a focus on Xia - the man and his money. In the early days, a lot of criticism did fall into these brackets, and rightfully so, a lot of it, itself, was criticised. Initial criticisms of Xia were problematic and came mostly from a 'fear of the East' as a whole rather than taking anything of substance into account. There was room for some criticism, however.

Interestingly enough, Xia didn’t let the Matt Scott issue lie dormant. He tweeted the following out to his followers, that he doesn’t care what ‘nasty people’ are saying (by nasty people, he means journalists) - but that he must respond in the manner that he does to build the ‘fighting spirit’ of the club. Simply, he wanted to set an example for the club to follow, and if that example was to lash out at media figures - he nailed it.

Xia was never afraid to hit out at critics. At all. His doubters were called haters, their understanding of basic mathematics was called into question. He slaughtered ‘rumours’ on the spot. Going back to Scott’s original point on Xia, made in 2016 that the Chinese businessman was struggling to raise the funds needed to take over Aston Villa, Xia named him a ‘jerknalist’, again. They were wrong. At all times. In essence, nobody is right except Xia. Any single soul who doubted him was called into question by the man.

A tactic of the Xia regime at Aston Villa, clearly, is to incite social media pile-ons when information is aired that the club disagrees with. Scott’s first point about the takeover was quote-tweeted mockingly by then-CEO Keith Wyness who invited his following to ‘draw their own conclusions’. That means ‘harass this journalist’ in social media speak. A year after he posted that tweet, Wyness was removed from his role and suspended from the club after allegedly trying to sell the club from underneath Xia - or to seek administration.

This tactic has worked and not just because there are plenty of willing souls who previously were set to leap to Xia’s defence - but because it reigned in the local press. A publication which had once issued front-page stories demanding change was brought to heel in seconds. There has been no major condemnation of the Xia regime, at all, in the paper copy of the Birmingham Mail. It’s smaller scale, but even ourselves on this blog felt a bit strange about critiquing Xia - simply because of what might happen. A blog post from My Old Man Said resulted in the Chairman taking to twitter to say that ‘he felt insulted’. It has been nothing but personal from Xia since the start of his reign at the club, a figure who is now playing the part of ‘humbled’. Xia has always, always asked that Villa fans simply ‘back him against it all’ - against the news of the Chinese economy, against the news of FFP breaches, against the news of potential winding-up petitions, against his collapsed takeover of Millenium Films, against it all. If there’s something that Dr Tony Xia wanted from you, it was your blind faith in the club. In essence, our love for AVFC was borrowed against faith in him. Follow your heart - because it belongs to Villa, and stand by Xia, because Villa belong to him.

It must be mentioned now that these are abusive, demagogue-lite tactics. Calling reality into question, naming third-party critiques as false. Dismissing every single piece of ‘negative journalism’ as rumours and falsehoods. It almost seems like gaslighting and brainwashing. Almost like a perfect echo chamber could exist within the comments of Xia’s tweets - and why? Because he said so. Even now, with all the mounting evidence, I still desperately want to believe that Xia has a plan to move the club forwards. Even now, I still like Xia. Even at this point, my first instinct is to doubt the news about Xia (I didn’t pay Randy Lerner that privilege). I truly want it to work out, but how can it?

This is all very much within the playbook of modern-day politicians. Truth is a flexible idea and can be dismissed if it’s not your truth. Criticism is simply fake news. Fake news is news that you don’t like, and thus cannot be true as it’s fake. The current regime at Aston Villa have dismissed criticism as though it was a lie, told to spite the club. Tony Xia is hurting right now, for sure, but he’s not hurting as much as the rest of us. I can guarantee you that. By being open through his Twitter feed, Xia couldn’t have created a more closed world. A world that could be moulded to his truth, and nothing but that.