The seemingly impossible conundrum: social media and racial abuse

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Social media has a racial abuse problem. Faceless trolls are effectively free to say whatever they want, most often dodging serious consequences. The racial abuse of football stars Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka following their missed penalties at the Euros final has been despicable and faced wide condemnation and calls for change.

A week later Lewis Hamilton was also subjected to vile, racist attacks on social media, following his first lap collision with Max Verstappen at the British Grand Prix, which saw the latter hospitalised. High profile examples of racial abuse on social media, highlight, for many, daily occurrences on social media and are indicative of a truly toxic reality that has been allowed to fester for far too long.

There is an overwhelming feeling within the country, backed by the government, that more needs to be done to tackle online racial abuse on social media. How, however, is the question.  

There is an overwhelming feeling within the country, backed by the government, that more needs to be done to tackle online racial abuse on social media.

An online petition circulated recently has called for the government to introduce legislation that would make social media sites require ID to verify accounts. Whilst at face value this seems like an ideal solution, with anonymity often depicted as the biggest villain of social media, it can also be its biggest strength.

Social media provides a platform for people to be themselves in a way they could perhaps not be in real life. This is particularly evident through whistle-blowers and activists, including members of the LGBTQA+ community who benefit from the relative anonymity that social media can offer. In many situations requiring ID could force individuals into silence due to the fear of what their communities, families, employers, or even countries may do in response to their actions. This is particularly important for the LGBTQA+ community, with many countries discriminating against them or even criminalising homosexuality. It also would diminish free speech.

The success of an internet verification system has also proved unsuccessful in many other countries such as South Korea, which in 2007 adopted a requirement for users to submit their Resident Registration Number to use any website with over 100,000 visitors a day. However, this attempt was largely criticised and was declared unconstitutional by the Korean Constitutional Court as it was found to impede free speech, ignore privacy considerations and “was insufficient to show a decrease in hateful comments”. Not to mention the dangerous potential for data breaches. This therefore is not a solution as it would put vulnerable users at risk and is likely to have a minimal impact on reducing hateful and racist comments.

Other arguments are the government should increase the criminal sanctions on social media abuse, with Labour arguing senior executives should face criminal sanctions if they refuse to act on abuse – there have also been suggestions of internet ‘ASBOs’. However, given the massive court backlog, is this likely to have a far-reaching impact?

The government has argued that its proposed Online Safety Bill will be sufficient to combat online racism

The government has argued that its proposed Online Safety Bill will be sufficient to combat online racism by forcing social media companies to take action to remove harmful or illegal content, imposing a duty of care and giving Ofcom jurisdiction over social media sites. However, this Bill is far from reality and is likely to face significant opposition in and out of parliament with some describing it as “catastrophic” for free speech.

This leads to the inevitable conundrum between government protection and censorship in dealing with social media.  

Social media companies themselves are perhaps best positioned to identify and eliminate racial abuse; the question is will they do so sufficiently? Following the racial abuse towards Rashford, Sancho and Saka, Instagram stated that the use of monkey and banana emojis, “didn’t go against our community guidelines”, a statement that is almost unfathomable given the context in which such emojis had been used.

Social media companies are not doing enough to tackle racial abuse, but the government will have to toe a very fine line to do anything about it without impeding free speech and the safety of marginalised groups. 

Image: Howard Lake by Creative Commons

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