Social Justice

Why is social media still a catalyst for racist hate?

As soon as Bukayo Saka missed his penalty, we all knew what was coming. The Euros showed yet again that Big Tech isn't doing enough to tackle social media racism

In May 2021, Marcus Rashford reported private messages to police after he was subjected to another wave of racist abuse on social media. He received more than seventy abusive messages online following Manchester United’s loss in the Europa League final against Villarreal. One user who sent abuse — a mountain of monkey emojis in his DM — turned out to be a maths teacher. 

As England fell at the final hurdle of the Euro 2020 championships, to an Italy team who haven’t lost a game since 2018, it felt as if time was repeating itself. As soon as Bukayo Saka missed his penalty, we all knew what was coming. Within minutes, the Instagram accounts of Rashford, Sancho and Saka — the three players who missed during the shootout — were flooded with horrific racial abuse. Not only that, but a mural of Rashford in Greater Manchester was defaced just an hour after England’s defeat.

It was swiftly condemned across the country, with Gareth Southgate slamming the abuse as “unforgivable” and Prince William calling it “totally unacceptable”. And with it comes the question of why social media is so slow, yet again, to tackle the vitriol. It’s not the first time Black football players faced racial abuse after losing a football match, and unfortunately it won’t be the last. 

Back in April, a coalition of English football’s largest governing bodies united with athletes from different sports to boycott social media over the worsening abuse towards players. At the time, anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out said the boycott “signifies our collective anger”. It was also a way to pressure social media companies to step up and take regulating harmful content more seriously. 

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In response to the abuse faced by these young players over the past day, many social media users have taken action to report the content. This morning, Twitter was flooded with screenshots of people reporting the comments, while others were filling the comment sections with messages of positivity and hope. Some users were sharing photos of their reports being rejected. Labour MP Charlotte Nichols tweeted that “social media companies are a joke” when it comes to dealing with racism and hate, alongside a screenshot of her rejected reports over a user who had commented “its deportation time”. 

Once again, social media platforms are a catalyst for such hate, with those in charge again accused of not doing enough to tackle it. It isn’t easy — some users can get away with abuse by using innocent-looking emojis, such as a monkey or a banana. In the wrong context, these emojis are extremely offensive. Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, told The Big Issue that the “disgusting racist abuse” is a “direct result of Big Tech’s collective failure to tackle hate speech over the years.”

In his view, this toxic culture exists because these firms “refuse to take action” and refuse to impose action on those who spew hatred on their platform. “Abusive users haven’t de-platformed in the past because social media companies profit from racism — and especially the controversy and debate it generates,” he tells The Big Issue. “We need to see evidence that Big Tech and the government are taking this problem more seriously.” 

In a tweet, Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said that social media companies “need to up their game” when it comes to addressing online abuse. He added that the new Online Safety Bill will “hold them to account”- with “fines of up to ten per cent of global revenue.” On the other hand, Labour have criticised the bill which is yet to go through parliament  as “watered down” and countered that it would not put a stop to such conduct. Instead, the opposition party would strengthen the bill by including criminal sanctions for senior tech executives who repeatedly fail to enforce the rules. 

A Facebook Company spokesperson told The Big Issue they “quickly removed comments and accounts directing abuse” at England’s footballers last night.

“No one should have to experience racist abuse anywhere, and we don’t want it on Instagram,” they said. In addition to our work to remove this content, we encourage all players to turn on Hidden Words, a tool which means no one has to see abuse in their comments or DMs. No one thing will fix this challenge overnight, but we’re committed to keeping our community safe from abuse.”

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