How Facebook failed to stem racist abuse against England footballers

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Facebook executives also privately admit that racist rhetoric against England footballers is likely to continue.

(Photo: REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / File photo)

Written by Ryan Mac and Tariq Panja

In May 2019, Facebook asked the organizing bodies of English football to visit its London offices in Regent’s Park. On the program: what to do about the growing racist abuses on the social network against black footballers.

At the meeting, Facebook gave representatives from four of England’s major football organizations – the Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Association – what they believed to be a dud, said two people familiar with the conversation. Company executives told the group they had a number of issues to address, including content on terrorism and child sexual abuse.

A few months later, Facebook provided football officials with an Athlete Safety Guide, including instructions on how players can protect themselves from bigotry using its tools. The message was clear: it was up to players and clubs to protect themselves online.

The interactions marked the start of what has become a more than two-year campaign by English football to pressure Facebook and other social media companies to curb online hate speech against their players. . Football officials have since met with the platforms on several occasions, sent an open letter calling for change and organized social media boycotts. Facebook employees joined in, demanding that he do more to end the harassment.

Pressure intensified after the European Championship last month, when three of England’s black players were subjected to torrents of racial epithets on social media for missing shots on goal in the decisive shootout of the final match. Prince William condemned the hatred and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened to regulate and impose fines on companies that continued to allow racist abuse. Inside Facebook, the incident was turned into a “Site 1 event,” the equivalent of a company-wide five-alarm fire.

Yet as the Premier League, England’s top division, opens its season on Friday, football officials said social media companies – especially Facebook, the biggest – had not taken the issue enough to the fore. serious and gamers were bracing for hate online again.

“Football is a growing global market that includes clubs, brands, sponsors and fans who are all tired of the tech giants’ obvious lack of desire to develop platform solutions for the problems we face. are faced on a daily basis, ”said Simone Pound, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the Professional Footballers Association, the players’ union.

The stalemate with English football is another example of Facebook’s failure to resolve speech issues on its platform, even after being made aware of the level of abuse. While Facebook introduced some measures to mitigate harassment, football officials said they were insufficient.

Social media companies are not doing enough “because the pain is not enough for them,” said Sanjay Bhandari, president of Kick It Out, an organization that supports equality in football.

This season, Facebook is trying again. Its Instagram photo-sharing app is expected to roll out new features on Wednesday to make racist content harder to view, according to an internal document obtained by The New York Times. Among them, one will allow users to hide potentially harassing comments and messages from accounts that do not follow them or have recently followed them.

“The sad reality is that the fight against racism in social media, just like the fight against racism in society, is complex,” Karina Newton, Global Head of Public Policy at Instagram, said in a statement. “We have made significant progress, many of which have been motivated by our discussions with groups targeted for abuse, such as the British football community.”

But Facebook executives also privately admit that racist rhetoric against England footballers is likely to continue. “Nothing will solve this challenge overnight,” Steve Hatch, Facebook director for Britain and Ireland, wrote last month in an internal memo the Times reviewed.

Some players seem resigned to the abuse. Four days after the European Championship final, 19-year-old Bukayo Saka, one of the black players who missed penalties for England, posted on Twitter and Instagram that “powerful platforms don’t do not enough to stop these messages “and called it” sad “. reality.”

Around the same time, Facebook employees continued to report hateful comments on Saka’s posts to their employers in an attempt to have them removed. The one that was flagged – an Instagram comment that read “My brother is staying in Africa” ​​- apparently did not break the platform’s rules, according to the automated moderation system. He remained standing.

Much of the racist abuse in English football has been directed against black Premier League superstars such as Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. Around 30% of Premier League players are black, Bhandari said.

  • The Indian Express website was rated GREEN for its credibility and reliability by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources against their journalistic standards.


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