Explained: Why English football is boycotting social media platforms

There is a possibility of less football content on social media platforms for four days starting April 30. That’s because football’s governing bodies in England have decided to boycott Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in a “symbolic gesture” to protest against online abuse and discrimination — whether racial, gender-based or any other type — and demand that these companies do more to tackle the problem.

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What has been decided?

There will be a four-day boycott of social media platforms, starting April 30, as a means to fight online abuse and discrimination. It aims to emphasise the need for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to do more to prevent their websites from becoming channels of hate, often directed against footballers and others related to the game.

Who all are involved in the boycott?

The Premier League, English Football League, Women’s Super League, The Football Association, Football Supporters’ Association, Professional Footballers’ Association, League Managers’ Association, Women in Football, Women’s Championship and its clubs, refereeing body Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) and anti-discrimination charity Kick it Out have committed to be part of the boycott.

How big is the problem?

Online hate directed at footballers, commentators, referees, club officials and others involved in the sport is an ongoing malaise. Despite the social media companies expressing their commitment and willingness to address the issue, abusive and threatening language is common on these platforms and often takes a long time to be taken down.

According to statistics quoted by the BBC, one in 10 football matches in England and Wales in the 2019-20 season had an incident of hate crime. The number of arrests for improper and racist chanting increased from 14 to 35 from the previous season. This despite a large number of matches either being cancelled or played without spectators due to the pandemic.

Who have been the prominent players to suffer online abuse?

Manchester City’s Kyle Walker had racist abuse targeted at him on Instagram after his club won the League Cup on Saturday, defeating Tottenham Hotspur in the final.

Others to have suffered in a similar manner include Arsenal winger Willian, his club teammate Eddie Nketia, Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, Chelsea’s Reece James, as well as Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Naby Keita and Sadio Mane. That all these players happen to be Black points to a definite racial angle.

Even retired players are not immune to online abuse. Former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright received racially abusive private messages on Instagram from an Irish teenager after he lost a Fifa game on Playstation. The youngster escaped criminal conviction in court.

Fellow Gunners legend Thierry Henry removed himself from social media in March citing racism and bullying.

What is the type of abuse targeted at footballers?

Willian was called a “monkey” by two different Instagram users after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Benfica in the UEFA Europa League. Nketia was told, in a racist message, to leave the club after he posted a training picture. James shared a screenshot of monkey emojis and messages referring to his “dirty black skin” on the same network. Martial received messages of racial hatred, gorilla emojis and expletives.

Players ‘take a knee’ in support of the No Room For Racism campaign ahead of the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Monday, April 26, 2021. (Alex Pantling/Pool via AP)

What have clubs, Premier League and football in general done till now in this regard?

Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton issued a joint statement: “We stand shoulder to shoulder in saying there is no room for racism, hate or any form of discrimination in our beautiful game. It should not happen and it must stop”.

Earlier, United had urged social media platforms and regulatory authorities “to strengthen measures to prevent this kind of behaviour”.

Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham said racial abuse on various social media was the “biggest problem” in football, and said its effects “cannot be underestimated”.

“How do you explain to a black footballer that pirated content is taken down in minutes, but not racist abuse?” he said at the Financial Times Business of Football summit.

The Premier League, Football Association, English Football League, Women’s Super League, Women’s Championship, Professional Footballers’ Association, League Managers’ Association, Professional Game Match Officials Limited, and the sport’s equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out co-signed a 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.

Recently, Championship sides Swansea City and Birmingham City as well as Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers boycotted social media for a week in protest against online abuse of footballers.

A ‘no room for racism’ message is displayed (Pool via Reuters/Mike Egerton)

What are Facebook and Twitter doing in this regard?

Both companies have said they are taking steps to remove abuse from their platforms. Facebook has announced that they will impose stricter penalties on accounts which repeatedly send abusive direct messages on Instagram — which it owns — including disabling the account.

Instagram has announced a series of measures to deal with the problem, including removing accounts from which abusive messages have been sent, and developing new controls to help reduce the abuse people see.

Instagram has also announced a tool to enable users to automatically filter out abusive messages from those they do not follow on the platform.

Twitter permanently suspended the account from which the hate message to Nketiah was sent. But it has refused to accede to calls for disallowing anonymous accounts.

“We believe everyone has the right to share their voice without requiring a government ID to do so. Pseudonymity has been a vital tool for speaking out in oppressive regimes, it is no less critical in democratic societies,” Twitter has said.

What does the four-day social media boycott hope to achieve?

By their own admission, those involved in the boycott call it a “symbolic gesture” — in the words of Kick It Out chairman Sanjay Bhandari, as quoted by BBC.

A joint statement said the aim was “to emphasise that social media companies must do more to eradicate online hate”, and “highlighting the importance of educating people”.

“Boycott action from football in isolation will, of course, not eradicate the scourge of online discriminatory abuse, but it will demonstrate that the game is willing to take voluntary and proactive steps in this continued fight.”

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Does the government have a role to play?

The British government had announced plans to bring in new laws to make tech companies legally responsible for their users’ online safety. These could result in “large fines” on social media companies, potentially amounting to “billions of pounds”, if they fail to tackle abuse on their platforms.

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