There have been many outcries of social media platforms needing to do more to stop the anonymous racist abuse that are targeted at our (UK) black football players (current and former).
The two most common outcries are:
- platforms should do more to block these comments at source and not place the onus on the recipients to report and block the racist individuals
- platforms should not allow someone to create an account anonymously and then post their racist comments, which is a crime under the “Crime and Disorder Act with making racially aggravated comments”, without the ability to identify the individuals
Despite the responses from the platforms such as Facebook (which owns Instagram), and Twitter stating that “racist behaviour, abuse and harassment have absolutely no place on our service”1, the daily (if not hourly) abuse continues and to the wider public - not enough is being done and certainly not fast enough.
Let's start understanding the social media stance and as my professional career is in the IT sector, I will also shed some light from a technological perspective. I will cover the two common outcries, in addition the following points:
- what drives the success of social media platforms
- can racist comments be blocked
- benefits of anonymous accounts
- effect of boycotting the platforms
- the founders of these platforms
And then finally, my conclusion to “why social media deem it acceptable to allow racial abuse to black footballers”.
1. these social media platforms are hugely successful
- the social media platforms’ business (economic) model is to have hundreds of millions of users, spending as much time as possible (24-7) on their platforms and (by any means necessary) the more addicted, narcissistic, outrage and polarised we are – the more we are worth to these platforms. They can then target and customise the millions of adverts to their millions of users and ultimately - make billions of dollars.
2. ability to block racist comments
- regardless of what these platforms will lead us to believe, these comments can be blocked at source and filtered out before they become public.
- To state the obvious...racist comments are racist because of the wording and the context of those words. It is very, very easy to detect these key words (even if there are 10,000s of these racist words) and also the context, using algorithms and machine learning technique (similarly to Grammarly2). Ironically, these very same platforms are quick to boast how intelligent their systems are to perform far more complex processes such as holding conversation (chatbots), yet blocking all these racist comments are beyond them.
- the best that the platforms are offering, are tools for the user (the black players) to "moderate their replies". This places the onus on the user to block the racist comments and the perpetrators. This of course mean that you (the black players) have to at least read the racist comment and digest the mental pain, before you decide to block/report the perpetrator. Then once you block the perpetrator, he/she simply replaces the blocked (or suspended / deactivated) account and send their next racist comment.
3. why allow anonymous accounts?
- while the anonymity emboldens the perpetrators to send their racist comments with impunity, the vast majority are traceability through collaboration with internet providers, telecom (mobile operators) providers and the police. Every internet user has a unique address, call an IP address3 and just like your house address has a door number, street name, town, postcode and country - put them together and they form a unique address so that letters addressed to you, from anywhere in the world, arrives at your doorstep.
- the response from the platform representatives is the need to provide anonymity for users in oppressive states and regimes, victims of crimes, whistle-blowers etc – giving them a voice without repercussion from their oppressors, companies etc (legitimate protests are usually organised using social media platforms) and all right-minded individuals would support this argument.
- more to the point, disallowing anonymous accounts would significantly reduce the user base of the platforms and ultimately reduce their profitability and possible their viability.
- a new approach is needed on how we communicate online and, remove the toxicity and protection of anonymous account which these racist perpetrators rely on (will the forthcoming UK Online Harms Bill4 remove anonymity).
4. what effect will boycotting have on these platforms?
- from time to time, many (major) advertisers (Coca-Cola) and players (Thierry Henry) have boycotted these platforms.
- government representatives are suggesting they will face “severe sanctions” through fines.
- platforms want absolution of any responsibility for the posted comments and are resisting all attempts to be classified as publishers and regulated by Ofcom5 (similarly to newspapers and television broadcasters).
- boycotting will not stop or reduce the abuse but it does keep promoting these platforms at the top of the news agenda.
5. the platforms are founded and run by white men
- while I am not accusing these founders, in and of themselves, being racists or uncaring, they however, cannot begin to imagine or understand the damaging and long-lasting distress of racial abuse, racial discrimination or racial violence as they (literally) have no “skin in the game” (men will never experience labour pains…right?)
- putting forward defensive arguments such as “freedom of speech / expression” and “censorship” are predictable – although it simply allows perpetrators to racial abuse black people with impunity. Black people, for centuries have uniquely (and deliberately) been subjected to racial abuse, racial discrimination and racial violence. However, throughout those centuries, black people have not uniquely evolved to grow extra (thicker) layers of skin to protect and harden their feelings, sensitivity and mental well-being. Race-ism is the worst of all the -isms, because, black people cannot wake-up next day and change their skin colour like a “chameleon”, but instead, they have to overcome the daily trauma of racism and not let it dictate how they live their lives.
- it would be a very different proposition and approach if the founders were black because, when racism is perpetrated against a black person, it would also (indirectly) be abusing and offending the founders, would not be tolerated and defended as “freedom of speech”– why should anyone have the freedom to make racist speech against black people with impunity?
- The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, as his surname indicates, could easily and legally change his name to, for example, Mark Williamson - masking his identity and possibly, a life-time of anti-Semitic attacks, and just “look-like” another privileged “all- white” male. On the other hand, black people do not, regardless of any adaptation of Anglicised naming, assimilation or attainment, do not have the option to change their skin colour, thus avoiding identification and a life-time of racism. Furthermore, societies around the world have been structured throughout its institutions (government, religious, education, financial, legal, media etc), to dehumanise and discriminate against black people – there is absolutely no refuge.
- watch Ian Wright (a “much-loved” black footballer) and Alan Shearer (white footballer) share an honest conversation about the impact of racist online abuse. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/av/football/56949360
With all that said and done, the platforms will view the racial abuse “in the grand scheme of their operation and business model” and, it is a very small (minuscule) percentage, less than a fifth of, point one of a percent (0.02%), of the football comments posted6.
However, while the platforms deliberate on what (further) actions to take, it is clear they have little appetite to:
- eradicate these racist comments at source so they are not publicly
- disallow the creation of anonymous accounts as it would threaten their profitable and viability
- bow to pressure of boycotts from other companies and individuals.
The conclusion, from a black person’s perspective is…
Due to the “glacier crawl” and ineffective actions (so far) of the people responsibility for running these social media platforms, they seem to have deemed it acceptable that, racist abuse to black people are an acceptable trade off within their operation and business model and as I stated earlier, they have “no skin in the game” and defend it as “freedom of speech” and “censorship”, despite it being a crime in the “eyes of the law”. Of course, racist abuse is not only confine to black footballers, but to many other black members of other online groups on their platforms. With black people accounting for approximately 17% of the world’s population (1.3 billion)7, that is a lot of people directly and indirectly, being abused and offended and - deemed acceptable.
However, the outcries are not only from black communities, but there have also been many public statements from white community members that “racist behaviour of any form is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue”8.
We now await the UK Online Harms Bill as it is intended to set out a new regulatory framework to ensure people are safe online and establish a statutory duty of care for online companies to their users, which will be legally obliged to identify, remove and prevent anything illegal from being shared on their platforms, such as hate speech, child exploitation and suicide material. However, the proposed timeline for the legislation to be implemented is two to three years away (2023-2024)9.
Written By Winston Menzies