In recent weeks, racism in the Premier League has been in the spotlight. More specifically, online abuse has seen a flurry of high-profile cases hitting the headlines. Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba both received abusive tweets following missed penalties.
It is, of course, not just limited to the Premier League, but permeates all five divisions of English Football. Already this season Reading’s Yakou Méïté, Stoke City’s James McClean, Southend United’s Theo Robinson, and Barnsley’s Bambo Diaby have all faced discrimination of some form online.
This seems to suggest that the racism itself is one problem, but the medium through which it manifests itself so easily is another entirely. The statistics bring this issue into the harsh, stark sunlight of reality. In July, football’s anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out reported that these incidents increased by 43 per cent in the 2018/19 season. The problem for social media companies, particularly Twitter, seems to be bots and anonymous accounts allowing a lack of accountability for those seeking to abuse. So, what are they doing to resolve this?
Following on from the recent high-profile cases of abuse, the FA, Manchester United, Chelsea, and even the Government have all expressed plans to meet and have talks with Twitter. It is likely, however, that this will merely result in the usual polished PR response from Twitter that they are always working hard to improve their enforcement of accounts that violate their terms and conditions.
In all fairness, 2018 did see a concerted effort from Twitter to challenge problematic accounts. Between September 2017 and May 2018 the number of challenged accounts rocketed from 3.2m to 9.9m. This was further supported by the acquisition of Smyte, a technology company that specializes in safety, spam, and security issues, in June 2018. Although these are improvements, they only seem to satisfy one half of Twitter’s problem; the quicker reporting and subsequent handling of rogue, abusive accounts. It still does not solve the issue of accountability of individuals, which is at root of the problem.
This is where, perhaps, a more radical change to the very culture of Twitter needs to happen. Two such suggestions have come from Harry Maguire and Phil Neville in recent weeks. Maguire tweeted following the abuse of teammate Pogba, calling for requirement of passports or driving licenses to verify accounts. This would of course make people more cautious of what they write online, and eliminate fake accounts.
However, Maguire has overlooked the fact that millions of users worldwide do not own these documents, and people are generally sceptical of trusting social media companies with sensitive data nowadays. Neville suggested a football-wide boycott of social media. Although this would perhaps stun Twitter into action, and make individuals consider their actions, trolls would surely continue their abuse as soon as the strike was over. Graeme Souness would also like to point out here that Pogba and Jesse Lingard would be hard-pressed to give up Instagram.
It is not often that we would turn to the brains of two footballers to solve the complex issues of our time, and the suggestions do have their flaws. However, at least the ideas represent a suggestion more significant than a Kick it Out warm up T-shirt; more effective than a redrafted statement from the FA or Twitter, the cobwebs blown off from the last time it was trotted out at a press conference.
Twitter must take the essence of these sledgehammers of ideas, and find a more nuanced technological answer to the problem of individual accountability. Only then can football return to the back pages as the beautiful game.
Image: Антон Зайцев via Wikimedia Commons