Anti-Social Media: Will a Boycott Help?

The players and staff of Championship side Swansea City are set to boycott social media for one week. This decision was taken following a number of footballers, including several of the club’s players, being racially abused via the platforms in recent weeks.

The Welsh club, in announcing their collective social media blackout, released the following reasoning behind it:

“As a football club, we have seen several of our players subjected to abhorrent abuse in the past seven weeks alone, and we feel it is right to take a stand against behaviour that is a blight on our sport, and society at large.”

Swansea’s move follows in the footsteps of former Arsenal and Barcelona striker, Thierry Henry, who disabled his own accounts due to the “toxic” atmosphere that has been allowed to manifest on sites, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Swansea’s Jamal Lowe, Yan Dhanda and Ben Cabango are all among those to be targeted, influencing the club’s decision to suspend posting on all of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok and LinkedIn.

Swansea’s official club channels have more than 1 million followers on each of Twitter and Facebook alone, with their players having individual followings of their own, so their combined action will have an impact on the feeds of a significant number of users of social media websites. However, you cannot help but feel that the temporary nature of the boycott – lasting just a week – is unlikely to spring the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook into any immediate action.

If, on the other hand, it was an indefinite action, thus also allowing other clubs to follow suit and join the movement, the impact would be exponentially greater.

Now, it should be stated that it is a sorry reflection of society that players are being forced to boycott the websites designed to bring us all closer together, in order to avoid being subject to simply vile attacks, from individuals that are so rarely held accountable for their actions.

Players generate substantial revenue streams through advertising on these platforms and should not have to forego these, just to be treated decently. However, it is fast approaching a time when many are beginning to feel that they have no choice but to take action themselves, as changes implemented by those high up the hierarchies of social media platforms are both infrequent and insufficient.

Some social media sites may wish to retain the capability of their users to post anonymously, whilst others will point to the fact that avoiding individuals creating accounts using fake details is a fruitless task. Removing anonymity, which seems the simplest way to reduce racism online, is therefore unrealistic at this stage. However, three viable options to engender effective change remain available: education, policing and punishments.

Education is the most important, as it is the only long-term solution to creating a harmonious society, free from hate, for the future. Swansea forward Lowe noted how a lot of the abuse that footballers receive “is from 12-year-old kids”. This is terribly concerning, as it spits in the face of the idea that a lot of us have, at least subconsciously, that society is becoming more aware of the struggles of minority groups. Social media websites could use more of their advertising space to post anti-racism messages, or could invest in schemes that look to educate young people on the importance of racial equality. It is paramount that we change the attitudes of young people now, not later, for the younger generation will shape society for years to come.

With regards to policing, as Crystal Palace full-back, Patrick van Aanholt put it:

“If I post something on my Instagram with music, it can be taken down after two seconds because the music is not right.”

By contrast, racist messages commented under the posts of some of sport’s top stars often remain there for far longer before they are picked up by the site’s administrators. Facebook, which owns Instagram, may point to changes such as the fact that individuals can choose to never receive a DM from someone that they do not follow, as supporting their claim that they do not tolerate abuse. However, it is the disparity in the response times for instances such as those listed above that suggests that the sites should be being held more accountable for the discriminatory posts that they have allowed to manifest on their platforms.

Lastly, is punishment. This is more of an issue for the courts, as all social media websites can do is ban users who post discriminatory messages. However, here, punishments have thus far fallen short of having a sufficient deterrent effect. Take Patrick O’Brien, for example, who abused former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright in private messages on Instagram after he lost a game of FIFA. The Irish teenager avoided jail time for his actions and was instead handed probation.

The argument that Judge David Waters used was that there was little to be gained from sending a young man who had shown genuine remorse for his actions and had donated 500 euros (£440) to the Irish Network Against Racism to prison for his actions. Whilst this can be understood, such a punishment would have sent a strong message to those who may consider racially abusing sporting stars on social media in the future.

It is not ok. It is serious. You will be punished.

This is the message we, as a society, need to send out.

The issues are clear. Social media websites need to better police racist incidents on their platforms. The Government needs to fine the sites if they do not do so and use this money to fund education programmes that send out anti-racism messages to youngsters. The courts need to punish the few identifiable individuals that are prosecuted, to deter others from committing the same despicable actions in the future.

Will a Swansea-led boycott achieve this? Unless it gains significant support from elsewhere, I would regretfully say probably not.

However, with England manager Gareth Southgate backing Henry’s decision to quit social media and asking his players to consider doing the same and Kick It Out Chief Executive, Tony Burnett, encouraging other clubs and players to follow Swansea’s “brave” example, this support may just yet come.

A collective message sent from the entire footballing community. Well, now that would be another thing altogether…

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Luke Saward

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November 2021
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