Racism and abuse on social media in football and beyond

Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah is one of the latest high-profile footballers to receive racist abuse on social media in response to a training picture he posted on Twitter with the caption “working with a smile!” Nketiah is only 21 years old. Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham, Yaou Meite, Anthony Martial, Reece James, and Romain Sawyers are some of the other notable players to be subject to racial and hate filled abuse for innocuous offences such as missing penalties for their teams.

German goalkeeper, Bernd Leno says he stopped reading comments on social media after he was once told to copy Robert Enke, the former Germany goalkeeper who committed suicide in 2009. Analysis by Signify, a data science company, has revealed 16 instances of targeted racist abuse towards Granit Xhaka, a Swiss international of Albanian descent. Signify noted posts from accounts which self-identify as Arsenal season ticket holders. The company also revealed a series of homophobic abuse that is being directed at Spanish defender Hector Bellerin.

During the final six weeks of the premier league’s last season, a joint PFA and Signify study identified more than 3,000 explicitly abusive messages aimed at Premier League players, 56% of which were racist. Of the players surveyed, 43% said they had experienced targeted racist abuse.

Over the past two months the world of football has once again shone a spotlight on the vile, insensitive and often racist abuse that has become common place on social media platforms. A wave of condemnation has arisen from across the game and beyond to try and tackle this social cancer that has become normalized in digital society today. However, there is a growing sense that public rebuke and disapproval is just not enough to achieve meaningful reform and progress. After all, how do social media companies explain to victims of abuse that pirated content on their platforms can be taken down in minutes, but not racist, sexist, violent, and homophobic abuse?

In a remarkable development, English football bodies and leading figures in the game have come together to call on social media companies to “wake up” and not underestimate the impact the abuse has on victims. They have demanded action amid the increased and normalized level of abuse in an open letter to Facebook and Twitter. The Premier League, FA, EFL, WSL, Women’s Championship, PFA, LMA, PGMOL and Kick It Out have all co-signed the letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook founder, chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerburg, asking them “for reasons of basic human decency” to use the power of their systems to end the abuse. The letter notes that “the relentless flow of racist and discriminatory messages feeds on itself: the more it is tolerated by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, platforms with billions of users, the more it becomes normal, accepted behaviour.

Parties interested in prosecuting online abuse have felt hampered by what they called impregnable and unresponsive tech companies using privacy, freedom of speech, and the sheer weight of traffic as reasons for not cooperating and disclosing information to assist in the identification of offenders. As a result, many online abusers have continued their behavior unabated and comfortably in the knowledge that they face little risk of consequences. For this reason, court orders need to be obtained to force online platforms to co-operate in the collection of evidence. Another challenge is persuading players to take legal action, which can often seem a daunting prospect.

The pressure on the social media platforms is intensifying. The appetite for more regulation is growing. The Duke of Cambridge and president of the FA, Prince William, has also lent his weight in support. Writing on Twitter, he cited the need for social media companies to raise their game.

The gravity of the issue is also reflected by its increasing appearances in the courts..  Last month Judge David Waters, in the Tralee District Court, decided against imposing criminal convictions on Irishman Patrick O’Brien, 18, for sending former England striker Ian Wright grossly offensive, obscene, racist, and menacing messages on Instagram. O’Brien wished death upon Wright after losing a game of FIFA and blamed the loss on picking Wright in his team. Nevertheless, it appears to be only a matter of time until successful criminal prosecutions become the natural and normal consequence of such offences.

Another indication of the seismic shift in attitude to combat the issue can be seen in the remarks made by the Culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to the BBC. Dowden confirmed that the UK government has threatened social media companies with large fines if they fail to tackle abuse on their platforms, while also admitting that criminal sanctions could be considered for senior management. The Government has also vowed to press on with plans for groundbreaking new online harms legislation later this year to make tech companies legally responsible for the online safety of their users, and make them accountable to a regulator – Ofcom – over abusive content.

Against this backdrop, the next few years are likely to see some important developments and reforms in relation to online abuse.

Written by Abhinav Parameshwar at BLM abhinav.parameshwar@blmlaw.com

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