INCREASE OF RACISM TOWARDS FOOTBALLERS – AN INDICATION OF THE FAILURE OF TECH COMPANIES TO CURB ONLINE ABUSE

Suraj TN

RACISM IN FOOTBALL

The final of the European Championship, 2020 was in the balance when 19-year-old football prodigy, Bukayo Saka, stepped up to take a penalty for his country, England. If Saka had scored, then he would have restored parity with the opposition (Italy), making it 3-3 after 5 penalty kicks from both the teams. A miss meant that Italy would win the game.

However, Saka’s penalty was saved by Italian goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, which denied England their first international trophy for 55 years. Just before Saka, his other teammates, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho had also missed their penalties, which let Italy off the hook for their misses.

Bukayo Saka’s roots trace back to Nigeria[1], while Marcus Rashford’s[2] and Jadon Sancho’s[3] roots can be traced back to the Caribbean, making them susceptible to racist abuse due to their skin color. Hence, soon after they missed, they were brutally subjected to racist tweets and messages on different social media platforms.[4] Yes, it would have been frustrating for the English fans as their wait for an international trophy was prolonged by the defeat. Nevertheless, that does not warrant racist abuse being directed towards the players for their misses. Nothing warrants racist abuse and no one deserves to be subjected to it.

Those who have been watching football for a very long time will know that missing penalties is not a sin. Penalty misses are very common and have happened to the best of players in the past, too. It happens as players get jittery under the occasion and the pressure that it imposes on them. Further, the average age of the three English players who missed the penalties is just 21 years.

This harrowing incident where footballers were subjected to racism for their performances is, very unfortunately, not a new phenomenon. It is one of the several instances where footballers have been subjected to it, especially on social media.[5] These events have been happening despite English clubs openly embracing the “Black Lives Matter” Movement [6] and the “No Room for Racism” Movement[7], through which the players have been taking the knee before the start of every football match as an anti-racist message.[8]

Marcus Rashford was racially abused earlier, too.[9] Similarly, two of Rashford’s club teammates, Anthony Martial and Axel Tuanzebe, were abused due to their performances.[10] Racist abuse has also been due to the ethnicity of players. South Korean Player, Heung Min Son, faced severe racist abuse for being involved in a controversial incident which resulted in a goal being ruled out for the opposition.[11]

These instances had become so common and worrying that the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, who is also the president of the football association, tweeted in February that social media companies had to take steps to prevent the use of explicitly racist terms and emojis.[12]  Football clubs and several footballers also took part in an ‘unprecedented’ four-day boycott of social media symbolizing the fight against racism, and also the despair over a lack of action from tech companies.[13]

 STEPS TO REDUCE ONLINE HATE

This continuous pattern of racist abuse has raised the wider and serious question of online abuse via social media platforms. This has increased the amount of pressure on tech companies to respond. While tech companies like Facebook have agreed that there is more to do, it is also being argued by such companies that merely blocking certain words and emojis will not work as online abuse can also be in a “non-offensive context’,[14] which is certainly true.

However, the United Kingdom has tabled a draft bill, named the Online Safety Bill (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Bill’) to impose the duty of care on tech companies.[15] This duty mandates that tech companies must take steps to moderate their content.[16] The Bill also gives Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator[17]) the power to impose fines on tech companies, which can extend up to 18 million Pounds or up to 10% of the company’s annual global revenue (whichever is higher) if they breach their duty of care.[18] Even though the Bill has been criticized for being against freedom of speech and expression[19], it’s a step towards curbing online abuse.

WHAT STEPS CAN TECH COMPANIES TAKE TO CURB ONLINE ABUSE??

Apart from governments, tech companies themselves must take measures. As aforementioned, it is not easy for tech companies to curb online abuse, as identification of abuse and striking a balance with freedom of speech is not easy. Nevertheless, certain steps must be taken to reduce the frequency and continuous patterns of online abuse.

  1. Transparent communication of rules and policies.

Tech companies must ensure that their policies and rules are communicated clearly to their users. The use of nudges has been emphasized upon so that they can keep popping up and reminding users of the rules and policies that they must adhere to.[20]

  • Ensuring speedy response to complaints of online abuse.

Tech companies must make sure that complaints of online abuse are dealt with at a quicker pace. If this is not done, then it can result in ‘secondary victimization’, where the victim of online abuse is made to feel like a victim again because of the slow and lethargic approach of redressal agencies.[21]

  • Exploring the idea of removing anonymity.

Anonymity is where the user need not fully disclose who they are when they use social media. By such non-disclosure, people can create social media presence that is independent of their presence. By doing so, they can express whatever they want and this is one of the main reasons behind the increase in online abuse as people can say what they want to without getting caught.[22] Tech companies must consider reducing the liberty that people have to remain anonymous.

This is an approach that has divided arguments and must be dealt with caution as tech companies cannot ask people to provide identity proof as it will undermine personal liberty. However, tech companies can ask for information only to the extent that they can verify who the perpetrators are. Apart from this, social media platforms must also increase the severity of punishment for habitual offenders, which can also extend to banning the offender from the platform.

These are some steps that tech companies must take. Social media’s presence and influence is of such nature that it is an integral part of the lives of many, and currently, it is going through a phase where its very own authenticity and safety are being questioned due to an increase in abuse. Therefore, this is the time for tech companies to act, and if they fail to do so, then social media will inevitably become a breeding ground for only hatred and abuse.


[1] https://www.goal.com/en-gb/news/saka-ikpeba-wants-arsenal-star-invited-to-super-eagles/rdqdxsri9z121n2nunolxsg9d.

[2] https://www.thestkittsnevisobserver.com/soccer-star-marcus-rashford-puts-smile-on-faces-of-hungry-children/

[3] https://talksport.com/football/430919/who-jadon-sancho-england-usa/.

[4] https://www.firstpost.com/sports/euro-2020-fa-disgusted-by-racist-abuse-on-social-media-of-englands-penalty-takers-9797971.html and https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/57800431.

[5] https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/55887106.

[6] https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/53242328.

[7] https://www.espn.in/football/english-premier-league/story/4178139/premier-league-display-no-room-for-racism-instead-of-black-lives-matter-on-kits.

[8] https://www.scotsman.com/sport/football/what-does-taking-the-knee-mean-why-footballers-take-the-knee-origin-of-gesture-and-what-priti-patel-said-3307215.

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/may/27/marcus-rashford-receives-racial-abuse-social-media-after-europa-league-loss.

[10] https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11667/12201010/axel-tuanzebe-manchester-united-defender-racially-abused-on-instagram-after-sheffield-united-defeat.

[11] https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11675/12272954/heung-min-son-tottenham-forward-racially-abused-online-after-defeat-to-manchester-united.

[12] Supra note 5.

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/apr/24/footballers-to-boycott-social-media-in-mass-protest-over-racist-abuse  and https://www.bbc.com/sport/56936797.

[14] Supra note 5.

[15] https://www.latham.london/2021/06/uk-government-publishes-draft-online-safety-bill-to-tackle-illegal-and-harmful-content-online/.

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/what-is-ofcom.

[18] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/features-and-news/new-online-safety-powers-government-bill-published.

[19] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-57569336.

[20] https://ifex.org/three-ways-social-media-companies-can-disarm-abusive-users/.

[21] https://cyberbullying.org/how-social-media-companies-should-combat-online-abuse.

[22] https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/anonymity-on-social-media-and-its-ugly-consequences-11612977615856.html.

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