Is the online room for racism, provided by social media, finally being addressed?

There are rumours that massive social media companies may soon be hit where it hurts – their wallets. In light of the spate of recent cases of online abuse being directed against professional footballers, various reports have emerged, suggesting that a fine of up to 10% of revenue is being considered for social media giants, if they fail to appropriately respond to abusers on their sites.

Now would seem like an appropriate point to begin listing players and pundits that have been racially abused online lately, but I could not achieve this within my word limit and, by the time this article gets published, there will almost definitely be many more names to add to the list.

I am writing my dissertation on this topic and it is impossible to keep up with how many cases there are. Instances of abuse have gone up since the start of the season, but, even before lockdown, occurrences were already on the rise. In the 2019-20 season reported cases of racist abuse to Kick It Out were already up 42% from the previous season.

Following recent high-profile instances of abuse, the FA has released a statement regarding the online racism that footballers are facing. It was as follows:

“We are united with all of football in our abhorrence of any racist abuse. This is not acceptable in any part of society. We will continue to work with the rest of the government and social media platforms to remove this – and all elements of – discrimination from our sport”.

It is unclear yet whether this statement will lead to any meaningful change in policy, or if it will just end up being another platitude of condemnation that just gets tweaked the next time this conversation comes up.

Accountability is key. In fairness to the FA, the fact that most of these companies are based in the States has made it difficult for them to take any effective action to prevent abuse on specific sites. However, many believe that the election of Joe Biden is a cause for genuine optimism that there may soon be a wide-ranging clampdown on the social media giants.

As mentioned earlier, huge financial penalties are already being considered. The UK Government has also confirmed it is going to make legislative changes that increase accountability of social media companies for malicious content. Appropriate legal repercussions like these are key. Whether they are sufficiently applied in practice however, remains to be seen.

In early February, it was announced that the 18-year-old that racially abused Arsenal legend Ian Wright online after losing a game of FIFA will face no criminal conviction. Instead, the judge claimed that the man acted with ‘immaturity’ and ‘naivety’ when he wished death on Wright for the colour of his skin, but was undeserving of a criminal sentence.

As a result of the widely reported influx of recent cases, Instagram have said that they will now permanently ban users that repeatedly direct message abuse. This comes after Facebook (owners of Instagram) faced heavy backlash for only temporarily banning the abuser of Swansea player Yan Dhanda.

Football already has its own ongoing crisis with racism, from grassroots to the Premier League. When this is paired with an apparent unwillingness to act from social media companies, then it looks to be getting even worse. As a result of this, more and more people are calling for an end to the same tired clichés and empty gestures. What is needed is more cold, hard, fast policy decisions.

One solution that has been suggested, with increasing support as of late, is that all social media companies require the provision of certifiable, personal information before allowing users to create an account on their sites. This would directly increase the accountability of users and theoretically prevent them from just getting banned and creating a new account.

Obviously, getting rid of online anonymity is not, in and of itself, a cure for the racist abuse of footballers online. There will always be people out there all too happy to have their name and picture on their account associated with the vile abuse that they hurl out. Further, the removal of anonymity from the internet has complex problems regarding privacy and safety. However, it certainly can be argued that the benefits of doing this far outweigh any potential drawbacks.

Would this measure solve everything? Absolutely not. Could it potentially make a real difference? I think so.

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October 2021
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