Social media boycott a good first step in fight against online racial abuse

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I run the English-language Twitter page for VfL Bochum 1848, a 2. Bundesliga (hopefully soon to be Bundesliga) side. It’s part of my Year Abroad and something I get a great amount of joy from. It’s an account with just shy of 2000 followers and predominantly produces a wonderfully supportive community.

People of all ages and nationalities brought together by their love of a former Bundesliga institution, based fifteen minutes down the road from Dortmund.

Recently, Bochum got the 2. Bundesliga’s weekly slot on BT Sport. Despite being six points clear at the top of the table, we collapsed to a 3-1 loss to 11th placed SV Darmstadt. Just before full-time, a steady stream of messages and comments started to appear.

Without going into details, they certainly weren’t complimentary. Every time the team doesn’t win, these messages always rear their very ugly head.

Forgive something of a winding intro, I am getting to the point. If hate and vitriol can even find their way into my very niche corner of German football Twitter, I don’t want to imagine what most footballing social media teams have to see on a weekly basis.

Tyrone Mings, Raheem Sterling, Wilfred Zaha and Kyle Walker are just a few of the players who’ve spoken out about the racism they’ve experienced on social media recently.

This widespread culture of casual hate caused the FA, Premier League, EFL, FA Women’s Super League, FA Women’s Championship, PFA, LMA, PGMOL, Kick It Out, Women in Football and the FSA to implement a social media boycott from Friday 30 April to Monday 3 May.

Every time the team doesn’t win, these messages always rear their very ugly head.

They were joined by Sky Sports, BT Sport, and many others. This followed a smaller, week-long social media boycott from Swansea City, Birmingham City, and Rangers.

The FA and Premier League have come equipped with a set of specific demands for once, rather than vague statements telling fans to do better. In a letter from February 2021, English Football told social media sites it was, “urging filtering, blocking and swift takedowns of offensive posts, an improved verification process and re-registration prevention, plus active assistance for enforcement agencies to identify and prosecute originators of illegal content.”

This is a genuinely good initiative from the league to combat a real problem. The top seven most followed football clubs have over 1 billion followers combined across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. The twenty Premier League clubs have over 100 million Twitter followers combined. Football Twitter is an entity within itself.

Footballing social media accounts going silent will hurt social media platforms where it hurts: their pockets. It’s often been proven that these platforms do very little to fight racism. Just post a copyrighted video or song and see how quickly it gets taken down. The same does not apply to racial hatred.

Of course, this isn’t going to take racism off social media platforms overnight. Nor is it going to affect those platforms. However, it will show that English football is willing to do something to fight the problem. This isn’t just another performative statement, this is action.

Social media can provide an incredible space to discuss football or sports of any kind. However, aided by anonymity and an almost total lack of regulation, trolls are able to ruin not only the social media space but directly harm people.

It’s often forgotten that football players are human beings

Clubs are finally starting to stand up for their players, supported by both the league and the media outlets. Whilst this has undoubtedly come about far too late and the problem has been allowed to spiral far more than it should have, at least action is now being taken.

We can only hope that a weekend boycott will become a week, and a week will become a month until platforms acknowledge this problem and until the government legislate further on this issue.

It’s often forgotten that football players are human beings. They’re treated like commodities by the club and, in many cases, by the fans. As a movement, this could be the start of something wider, to help give players their humanity back.

If trolls had to look the players in the eyes, nine times out of ten nothing would be said. The same should apply online. This can be done by the clubs from within.

It’s very rare for clubs to stand up for their players. It’s even rarer for wider bodies like the FA to wade in. The fact they have shows how fundamentally deep and dangerous this problem is.  

We hope that the boycott will make social media platforms sit up and listen. Even more, let’s hope that it gives social media trolls a chance to get off their phones and look in the mirror.

Image: English FA

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