Football's battle with racism - and the need to beware simple answers
A problem that blighted football for longer than anyone wants to remember has reached boiling point in the first few months of a new year. Something needs to change. Football has seen enough. The Government has seen enough. A solution is put forward - compulsory identification of individuals - but not everyone agrees that this is the right way to solve a blight which has roots in many socio-economic factors.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That was football in Britain in 1985. A time excellently described in this FourFourTwo article from 2015 about hooliganism during that era.
The similarities between 1985 and 2021 are stark.
Then, as now, the Conservatives had been in majority power for six years. Then, as now, there was income inequality. The FourFourTwo article quotes from Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain where he states that in the 1980s the rich became richer but “the bottom 10% saw their incomes fall by about 17%.”
In the current day, “the gap between the richest in society and the rest of the population has widened" according to a 2020 report.
Then as now, racism reared its ugly head against this backdrop. In 1985, it often showed itself through football and with racism tragically again on the rise since the Brexit vote, according to at least one study, we find ourselves back where we were.
But whilst the backdrop is familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1980s (1985 was also the year I was first taken to a game, as an 8-year-old) the way this poison shows itself these days is through the medium of the age: social media.
Back in 1985 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, thought ID cards for football fans was the solution. Football pushed back - to the point of suggesting the hooligans belonged not to sport but to the country itself.
“These people are society’s problems and we don’t want your hooligans in our sport, Prime Minister,” said Ted Croker, the CEO of The FA (and, incidentally, the late grandfather of current England player Eric Dier).
In 2021, this time it’s football suggesting ID as the answer.
“Every account that is opened should be verified by a passport/driving licence,” said Manchester United and England player Harry Maguire after his team-mate Paul Pogba was racially abused.“Stop these pathetic trolls making numerous accounts to abuse people.”
Others - most recently Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp - have expressed similar sentiments.
It’s an understandable response to the evil of racism. The idea is that people will be disinclined to abuse footballers (or anyone) if they know their account is linked to a real-world identity and they could be tracked down by law enforcement and punished.
I see the idea floated by numerous people in my own social media timelines. Unfortunately, the well-meaning people who suggest it are not the ones who would ever send abuse online and therefore it seems a simple solution.
Viewed from a wider, more global perspective, the idea is unworkable, unenforceable, and unsafe.
Let’s be clear what we would actually be suggesting if we went down that path: the biggest collection of personal information in human history.
Facebook has 2.7bn users, Instagram, owned by Facebook, has 1bn. Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok all have hundreds of millions. Even if we just take Facebook and Instagram, that might be 3bn people uploading their personal information to a single, commercial business.
Step away from football for a moment, and you will find journalists asking serious questions about Facebook’s management of the data it currently has. I can only imagine the reaction if football walked into that conversation and advocated that we all upload even more.
If this happened, the list of questions would become even more immense, even more weighty, even more urgent. How is the data stored? For how long? Who would have access to it, under what circumstances, and under which country’s laws? Who verifies that uploaded information is authentic? What’s the process when someone’s name or identity changes?
Those are likely to remain theoretical questions because, like the ID cards of 1985, this almost certainly will never progress beyond being an idea.
Not least because, as far as I’m aware, it’s only English football asking for it (and even then, just a few voices). As global as the Premier League has become, it is a long way from being the dominant factor determining product and strategy policy at the social media giants.
So if not that, then what? We’re long since past the point where football expects the social media companies to do something more than they have done up to this point.
In my opinion, 5 things could, should or will happen and we’ll probably end up with some combination of all of them:
Social media companies must beef up their safety teams to ensure that when abuse is reported, it’s met with a human response, not a bafflingly robotic one. They must bring in more new tools, and improve consumer adoption of these tools. In Adam Crafton’s excellent article for The Athletic on this issue, published on Saturday, a spokesman for Facebook and Instagram was quoted as saying that “between October and December last year, we took action on over 33 million pieces of hate speech content, more than 95% of which we found before anyone reported it to us.” The article states that Facebook and Instagram have tripled its safety and security team to 35,000 people in the past three years. I would also add that Instagram and Twitter have added plenty of new tools in the last few years which enable all of us to better protect ourselves by controlling who can reply to our content and filter out specific terms in those messages. Yet, players still get abused. We probably need stricter controls on who can send messages to who - currently all of us can choose to only accept DMs from accounts we follow, but this feature isn’t always used. Is it well enough understood? Should it be the universal default on all platforms and if athletes want open DMs, they can choose to do so, rather than the other way around? Furthermore, I think everyone in football would say that we still see too many reports of abuse met with robotic responses suggesting there has been no breach of rules, when any human could tell the post was deeply offensive. This feels like an area that all platforms could invest still more in, and be much firmer when abuses are reported, since we’re asking people to report it, but many have lost confidence in what will happen when they do so.
Abusers will be identified and punished more often. Even if the platforms sit across the laws of many different nations, the people who send abuse via the platforms are accountable to the laws of whichever country they are in. In the UK, Police forces are investing more resources to combat the problem, tech solutions are increasingly available to identify trolls, and communities within social media platforms are becoming more used to reporting abuse when they see it. Increasingly - and where appropriate - these reports may need to be sent to the Police, not just to the platforms, if there is infrastructure to do so and more confidence in that system. The more people that get punished by law for these offences, the greater the visible deterrent.
Football clubs and players will oscillate between boycotting and education campaigns. Recently Swansea City and Birmingham City announced a one-week boycott, while the players and manager of Rangers did the same (although not the club accounts). Meanwhile, Jordan Henderson handed his channels over to a charity which educates on the impact of online abuse. In my opinion, education will be more effective than short-term boycotts. To understand why, let’s recap on how social media platforms make money. They do so by analysing what each of us is interested in (information they have because we willingly upload it) and allowing advertisers to target us based on those interests. If one or two football clubs come off social media, there will still be football fans on their platform interested in those clubs, who can be targeted by ads. The fans will still be there because they use social media for all kinds of things, not just following football, and anyway the gap in news about their club would be filled by other content publishers - traditional media companies, independent fan bloggers and podcasters, etc. If football thinks it’s hitting the platforms in their pockets by boycotting, it isn’t. If advertisers boycott, it impacts revenue, although even when 1000 advertisers did so, it wasn’t much more than a glancing blow. Lastly, when a boycott is just for a week, even if it was one of the world’s biggest clubs, and even if all of their millions of fans came off too (very unlikely) most platforms report their user numbers by how many people visited within any given month (known as monthly active users or MAUs) so fans returning after seven days would be neither here nor there. However, there is reputational damage to the platforms when anyone with a profile boycotts, and if every major club and all their players came off all the platforms for a month or more, that would be a very serious PR issue for the platforms, even if not a monetary one.
Related to point number 3, clubs might decide to invest more heavily in the digital platforms they own, rather than prioritising social media. Many clubs have under-invested in ticketing platforms, CRM, data warehouses, e-commerce and more, in the rush to embrace big, global audiences on social platforms. If they boycott, and invest that time and money in other areas of digital, they might be pleasantly surprised by how much value they can drive from their own channels. Players, too, might find that coming off social media does not have a negative impact on their lives or careers. Nobody should ever feel they have to come off social media because of abuse but if they proactively choose to have time out, and find that actually their mental health is improved by it, that could be the spark that leads to more athletes deciding to take longer, more regular breaks from the incessant global buzz of these platforms. We may already be seeing a generational gap with Phil Foden experiencing an issue with his Twitter last night - apparently not written by himself - and Gary Neville suggesting that players should be taking control of their own channels.
The way we all use platforms will move away from the current model, which has changed the world in ways both good and bad. We’ve had almost 20 years of one form of digital dominating - the timeline-led social media experience - and nothing lasts forever. We will come to look back on the first era of social media as a crazy time when pretty much anyone could send a message to anyone in the world, however famous they might be and no matter how high tensions were running around a subject. We wouldn’t let that happen in real life - and it turns out that when we did so online, most people could handle that privilege but a poisonous minority could not. We are seeing the rise-and-rise of newsletters and audio. This is a return to one-to-many publishing (although there will be communities around those content channels). Seven League has long predicted a return to online communities around specific interests (rather than all of us blasting all our opinions on multiple subjects to the same people) and a pivot to privacy (where we increasingly have more of those conversations on messaging platforms eg the rise and rise WhatsApp). The social media giants are part of that evolution and their platforms will change (WhatsApp is also owned by Facebook). We’ll likely adapt our online behaviour as they do so. New generations of athletes will probably see what’s happened with those a generation before them, and might not want any part of that, and for fans too, we will start to spend more time talking in closed communities to like-minded fans, on platforms where we don’t have the ability to directly message a famous footballer. Of course, if people hold racist views, this evolution of technology won’t make those views go away (in fact the echo chamber effect of those opinions being seen only by like-minded people will, if anything, embolden that frame of mind) but one positive is that it will then be less likely to be sent directly to the inbox of those who currently have to receive this poison.
The extent to which those things will help remains to be seen. As in 1985, everyone would agree that something needs to change and, as in 1985, the answers aren’t easy, even if some people then, and now, would claim to have a simple answer.
Football + Social Media is sometimes a marriage made in heaven. At other times, when football’s tribal toxicity makes people forget they are humans talking about, and to, other humans, it becomes a marriage made in hell.
The social media companies can and must do more to prevent it - no doubt about that. Football, which plays off its tribal rivalries and, in any given week, sees yet another “war of words” between pundits and/or managers, can also do more to take the toxicity out of the sport. For all that this is a multi-billion dollar global industry, it’s also, when all is said and done, just a game.
For now, we’re back to the future, in 1985, with a national sport facing a crisis. Then, as now, the problem belonged to all of us, and right now, solving it starts with all of us.
Social media (and maybe also football) reflects the best and worst of society, and right now it’s on all of us who deeply care about football, and ending the poison of racism, to do our bit.
Call it out, report it, and help educate those who send it and everyone else (including the platforms themselves) on the damage it causes. Only then can we ensure that social media + football reflects only the very best of ourselves.