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Online abuse kicked off long ago. So where are social media’s referees?

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should have been prepared for the torrent of abuse against the British players who missed penalties in the Euro final

A mural dedicated to Manchester soccer player Marcus Rashford after it was vandalized following the Euro final.
A mural dedicated to Manchester soccer player Marcus Rashford after it was vandalized following the Euro final.Jon Super (AP)

While England soccer fans may have been crushed by a last-minute Euro final defeat on July 11, it is perhaps the aftermath of the match which will linger in people’s memories. Following England’s loss, racist abuse online was targeted specifically at Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, Black British players who missed penalties during the match’s final moments. Slurs ranged from repeated and dehumanizing use of the monkey emoji to calls for the players to “go back home,” reflecting the anti-immigration sentiments that are rife worldwide. The incident lit a fire under an issue already debated by many: what can social media platforms do about racism online? And why aren’t they doing more?

How can racist ideology be successfully challenged in sport when it is being peddled on the streets by numerous European governments?

Without trying to absolve tech companies, we need to be clear on a few points. First things first: this isn’t (solely) a technology problem. Governments across Europe are increasingly right-wing and hostile towards immigrants – or those perceived as being ‘outsiders.’ Few sports reflect this so clearly as soccer. There are numerous appalling incidents of racism in European soccer; Black players are verbally abused on the pitch and on social media depressingly often. Despite recent problems, the English Premier League is still seen by many as a ‘good example’ of a league making important changes to its approach to abuse against players. Yet even in England, there is a twisted irony to figures such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel condemning racist abuse, when it is the politics they practice which have helped engender hatred. How can racist ideology be successfully challenged in sport when it is being peddled on the streets by numerous European governments?

Social media companies themselves do little to challenge these sentiments, as we have seen previously in examples all over the world. Delayed moderating action in the aftermath of major events such as the Euros is unacceptable when racism in soccer is so predictable. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should have been well-prepared for this and responded far more quickly to reports of abuse. It has also been observed that social media platforms’ existing policies against hate speech allow for many loopholes and exploitations. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri admitted that the company made moderation ‘mistakes,’ and that the issue has since been “addressed.” This seems unconvincing when the mistakes have been repeated so many times before. Indeed, Facebook’s previous commitment to “free speech” came at the heavy cost of allowing misinformation and violent speech to proliferate on the platform. Facebook’s history of removing racist content is not a favorable one; how, then, are we meant to trust such companies to effectively moderate racist abuse? Technology may not have created racism, but by allowing such content on their platforms, tech firms reveal their complicity in allowing it to fester and spread.

Despite significant challenges, there is positive change afoot. The European Union’s upcoming Digital Services Act specifically addresses hate speech and racism. It seeks to hold Big Tech accountable in many ways, although there are already criticisms about items missing from the Act and other ways in which it may overreach its remit. Nevertheless, it does represent a crucial step forward in bringing EU countries to the same page on dealing with racism, abuse and misinformation. In the UK, on the other hand, numerous people incensed by the recent examples of abuse are campaigning to make ID a requirement for opening a social media account. There are many reasons why this is a slippery slope to venture down, and such proposed solutions show the difficulty of tackling online abuse without affecting the freedoms of Internet users.

Technology may not have created racism, but by allowing such content on their platforms, tech firms reveal their complicity in allowing it to fester and spread

In Spanish soccer, the Lances del Juego argument is invoked to mean that what happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch. Tensions run high, and things may be said in the heat of the moment. Yet abuse cannot be localized in this way. Racism does not happen ‘here’ or ‘there;’ it is an ever-fixed reality that refuses to disappear, regardless of where one might be. We need to stop thinking of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as being separate from the so-called offline ‘real world.’ Our lives are increasingly digitally mediated, such that there is no clear distinction between online and offline; racism on social media simply reflects the racism of European society. We must strive to moderate social media and remove hate speech – and those who generate it – in order to send an important message about the type of welcoming spaces that we want to create.

In working to create these spaces, platforms are aided not only by the work of numerous organizations fighting online abuse, but by the heroism and outspokenness of soccer players such as Marcus Rashford, who refuse to be silenced by abusers. What measures institutions take against online harassment in soccer will no doubt have an impact on the way other sports treat racism in their ranks, especially as we enter the Olympics season. The English soccer team may have lost the Euros, but they have shown remarkable allyship and solidarity with the wider cause of anti-racism in their unified criticism of the abuse their players have experienced. It’s high time that social media companies and European governments – as well as other European soccer leagues – supported them in their noble fight to show racism the red card.

Nayana Prakash is a PhD researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University, writing primarily on gender and technology in India.

With many thanks to OII colleague Josh Cowls for discussions on the issue of racism, technology and soccer.

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