Written by: Harry Colvin
Arsenal’s Willian de Borges is the latest footballer in England to receive racial abuse on social media, and he is not alone. Before him, there was Axel Tuanzebe. There was Anthony Martial. The list goes on and on.
Disturbing messages aren’t limited to racial abuse either. Referee Mike Dean and his family received online death threats after giving a red card to West Ham’s Tomas Soucek. Dean subsequently asked not to referee any matches the following weekend.
Like much of the modern world, English soccer has been at battle with racism and discriminatory attacks for some time now. The initially unfortunate abuse from the stands and in the streets has now extended to private messages and comments on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Wilfred Zaha, a footballer for London’s Crystal Palace, said that he is “scared” to open Instagram due to racial abuse. Zaha, who is from the Ivory Coast, claims that “for Black footballers…being on Instagram isn’t even fun anymore.”
In early February, the English Footballing Association and its highest-tier league, the Premier League, signed a letter addressed to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, and Mark Zuckerburg, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Facebook, which owns Instagram. The letter reads, “Recent weeks have seen the levels of vicious, offensive abuse from users of your services aimed at footballers and match officials rise even further, we write to ask that for reasons of basic human decency you use the power of your global systems to bring this to an end.”
The letter suggested additional steps that the social media giants could take towards solving the abuse. The list suggested the following: filtering private messages to players for racist or discriminatory material, subjecting users to an improved verification process, and mandating that social media platforms assist authorities in investigations identifying the originators of discriminatory material.
As of late February, Zuckerberg and Dorsey have not publicly responded to the letter from English soccer chiefs. However, there have been responses from Twitter UK and Instagram. Both responses included various tactics that the platforms will use to help the situation. Based on the responses from the social media platforms, it appears that the near future will see more steps towards improving the filtration system. Instagram included in their response that they have added the ability for users to add “comment filters” to filter out comments with certain words, emojis, or phrases. Twitter asserted that they have already made changes that allow users to limit replies and mute certain words. Both platforms ensured their commitment to work with the government to tackle the discriminatory behavior.
The heads of English soccer’s proposed change that “all users be subject to an improved verification process” approaches a very complex debate concerning online privacy and freedom of speech. Based on the statements made by both Twitter and Instagram, it appears that there will be no immediate changes towards the process of user verification. Twitter explained in their response that the option to remain anonymous without any proof of identification is a vital tool for speaking out. On the proposal of using government IDs for verification, Twitter stated, “Some of the communities who may lack access to government IDs are exactly those who we strive to give a voice to on Twitter.”
I do not believe that governments will be more involved with tracking or screening individual accounts than they already are. In England, the arrest of a 49-year old man who racially abused West Bromwich’s Albion Sawyers set a precedent for when access to an online abuser’s identity is available. However, in most racial abuse cases the identity is not clear enough to take legal action. It is common for abusive accounts to be “burner accounts”—accounts that are not linked to a real person. It appears that Instagram and Twitter are quite set on allowing users the option to remain anonymous.
Although racial abuse in online sports discourse is terrible, government identification requirements may be a step too intrusive into personal privacy. Twitter stated in their response that the ability to remain anonymous is a core element to the worldwide unity of the platform. Pseudonymity allows individuals freedom of speech in countries where it might be heavily restricted. In a world where we should be fighting for more freedom of speech, including more user verification may be a step in the wrong direction. It could potentially prevent millions of people worldwide from speaking up against repressive governments.
The route of comment and message filtration appears to be the route that social media platforms will be taking, and it is the most reasonable one. Unlike user identity verification, filtration does not impede user experience for the vast majority of accounts, especially those who do not use platforms for abuse.
The next steps for social media are to improve the filtration system and make users more aware of the options they have. When one creates an account on Instagram or Twitter, the privacy levels that you can apply to your account are not necessarily clear. Ensuring that athletes receive information on the steps they can take to protect themselves and their families could improve the situation.
There is a long way to go in this fight against online abuse towards athletes, and there are a few different routes that social media platforms can take. It comes down to the value of privacy and freedom of speech. It is difficult to find the right balance between them, especially when they are not universally acknowledged human rights. Professional athletes deserve more protection from online abuse, but preserving online accounts’ privacy appears to be a bigger priority for social media giants.