Should football boycott Twitter to tackle racism?

Twitter is a free for all. Scrolling through your feed whilst on the commute home can be risky, with NSFW content likely to fly in at you from nowhere. It’s this lax policing that leads to torrents of abusive content, whether that’s directed at footballers, celebrities or the average joe. However, Twitter – and social media in general – offers an outlet for freedom of speech. But what do we do when freedom of speech turns into hate-fuelled vitriol?

On Monday night, Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba was subjected to abhorrent racist abuse on Twitter after missing a penalty versus Wolves. The week before, Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham had suffered similar attacks. Reading striker Yakou Méïté also highlighted racist messages he had received. This behaviour is common, unavoidable and – worst of all – almost normalised in a time where we live on social media. So what’s the solution?

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England manager calls for boycott

England women’s manager Phil Neville has called for the football community to “send a powerful message” by boycotting social media for six months in response to the repeated racist abuse. The suggestion comes just months after Neville instructed his Lionesses to come off social media during the Women’s World Cup.

“I’ve lost total faith in whoever runs these social media departments, so I just wonder whether now as a football community, in terms of really sending a powerful message, it is: come off social media,” said the England women’s manager. “Six months – let’s come off social media. Let’s see the effect that it has on these social media companies, whether they’re really going to do something about it.”

In October last year Neville hit out at the “absolutely disgraceful” abuse directed towards England and Chelsea’s Karen Carney following a Champions League victory against Fiorentina. The player came out and posted screenshots of messages she had received, which included rape threats, death threats and wishes of her getting cancer. Despite numerous initiatives against racism, homophobia etc, this type of behaviour always resurfaces.

The midfielder posted this statement late last year.

Twitter says users will be punished

Twitter have made strong assurances that users responsible for racist abuse will be punished – but what’s the worst case scenario for these users? Having their accounts suspended is nothing more than a slap on the wrist – and most would simply create a new account to continue their campaign of taunting their players of choice. Shouldn’t online hate crime be tackled in the same way as if it were taking place on the streets, or in the stands? But if someone were caught, surely they’d use the age-old excuse of “I was hacked”. And how do you prove otherwise?

United defender Harry Maguire chipped in with his thoughts that all accounts should be verified with photo ID. However, in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the recent Great Hack documentary on Netflix, it’s probably unwise to offer more personal data to the social media giants.

Would a boycott make Twitter sit up and take notice? Premier League players held a 24 hour boycott last season which led to the representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram meeting with the PFA to discuss the issue. Could a lengthier boycott take the power away from Twitter? Surely they wouldn’t want to deal with the negative PR that a boycott would cause, and there must be a monetary damage.

Positive football content

Twitter is part of the culture

However, should football really have to come off the platform? As a football fan, a big part of the fun is the hype that surrounds Twitter on match days. Football fans flock to Twitter to get the latest team news, watch highlights, discuss key issues (don’t talk about the VAR) and engage with our favourite footballing accounts. The likes of MUNDIAL, Football Likealooks, Fisted Away and SPORF offer hours of enjoyment, and football Twitter is only growing. The majority of users are in it for the right reasons – and any teasing is only lighthearted, not crossing the line into prejudice.

Surely it’s Twitter who has to act here. It’s naive to think that AI isn’t advanced enough now for tweets containing racist abuse to be blocked before they’re even published. AI technology has been used in the past to ban ISIS messaging, but Twitter seems hesitant to use such algorithms incase innocent accounts are flagged. Again, the heads of the platform turn a blind eye to constant abuse – just as they have with neo-Nazism, child porn and violent content.

So what do the users themselves think? Here’s a snapshot of tweets on the matter, but the general consensus is that the responsibility shouldn’t lie with the footballers.

As another drama-filled season begins to unfold, prejudiced hate speech is going to pop up on our feeds week in, week out. It’s not a matter that’s going to disappear overnight. Where does it end? How do you enforce punishment? It’s a complex issue, and one without a simple solution – otherwise it would have been resolved by now.

However complicated the issue, something needs to be done. IOHO, it should be Twitter that sets the standard. Stop skirting the issue, stand up and take action. We all love Twitter, from the likes of you and I scrolling absentmindedly on the tram, to the President of the USA and his bizarre streams of consciousness. A hate-fuelled minority shouldn’t ruin our fun, so Twitter needs to crack down before it’s too late. It’s time to unleash the robots and tackle this disease head on. We’re all waiting.

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