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30 April 2021

Hashtags can’t hide social media’s failures to rule racism offside

Social media platforms’ moderation policies enable racism to thrive. Now football is staging a boycott.

By Sunder Katwala

I found out about anti-racism because of football. Growing up in Cheshire, my 13-year-old self had an Everton season ticket in 1987, the last time we were league champions.

I don’t remember noticing that Everton did not have any black players – the black superstars of West Brom and Spurs may have been more the exception than the norm at the time. Then Liverpool signed John Barnes and all hell broke loose. Some of my fellow Evertonians infamously threw bananas at the England star. Others sang “Everton are white”. So these were not great years to be a mixed-race Indian-Irish Evertonian – especially with the team’s form dipping too. 

There was much less overt racism at Everton after the 1994 World Cup – a combination of the gradual shifts in social norms at football, which were to take another step forward at Euro 96, and the signing of the Nigerian striker Daniel Amokachi.

Fast-forward to today, and football has put itself front and centre of anti-racism campaigning, with the FA and the Premier League among English football bodies organising a boycott of social media companies across this weekend.

There is a danger that the debate about the boycott may miss the key issue. This is not that some people are racist on social media: racism itself is a societal issue, as much as a platform one. The platforms are not responsible for people posting racist comments.

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But they are responsible for what they do when it happens – just as clubs such as Everton had to tackle the overt racism inside the grounds.

A Twitter spokesperson told me: “Racist behaviour has no place on our service and when we identify accounts that violate any of the Twitter rules, we take enforcement action.”

But, as any referee knows, it matters what those rules are. I think most people would be astonished to find out just how pro-racism the current Twitter rules are.

Take the following racist tweets.

No blacks in the England team – keep our team white.”

“Marcus Rashford isn’t English – blacks can’t be English.”

I asked Twitter to confirm whether this racism is allowed on the platform. They confirmed that these kinds of racist tweets are not against the current rules.

This is the fatal weakness in the current position of the social media platforms, which is being challenged by the players and clubs this weekend. The hashtags they promote are anti-racism, but the platform policies are still pro-racism, enabling users to spread racist content virtually unchecked.

I personally receive much more racist abuse now than I did 20 years ago, despite fewer people holding racist attitudes. This may be down to racists growing angrier and more vocal as social norms shift against them. But it is also because changes of technology now put this shrinking group of racists just a click away from just about any public figure, or anybody else who speaks publicly about racism.

People sometimes still tell me – on Twitter – that I cannot think of myself as British because of my ethnic background. Sometimes they say that I cannot be English. That happened again a couple of weeks ago, when I tweeted the Sun’s “we are England” spread, which was responding to the Labour MP David Lammy being told that he could not be English.

When people tell me that I am not English, I ask them whether that is true of Paul Ince, the first black captain of England.

“He can’t be English for the same reasons that a cat cannot be a dog” is one reply I received. I reported that – and was told that there was no violation of the rules.

There has been some progress on the rules against racism – albeit from a low base. “Dehumanising” content is now against the Twitter rules. Since the summer of 2019, it has been against the rules to tweet “the Jews are vermin”, though many people will be surprised it took so long. It took even longer to agree that dehumanising ethnic groups should become a violation too, but “the blacks are vermin” has also been a violation since Christmas 2020. Twitter’s rules are now more anti-racism than Facebook’s are.

But it should be clear why this ban on dehumanising racism is much too narrow. It is against the rules to tweet “deport all the blacks, Jews and Asians – they are rats and viruses”.  Yet it is entirely within the rules to tweet about that as long as you leave the animalistic metaphors out.

I sometimes think that too much of our public discussion about race in Britain centres on sport. But sport can make a difference to social norms. When the history of anti-racism in this country is written, the contribution of West Bromwich Albion’s black players in changing public attitudes might loom as large as the Commission for Racial Equality. Today, too few other spheres of our public life offer a prominent platform to young black people in their twenties. So it has been important recently that Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and their colleagues, both black and white, have seized the opportunity to drive the public debate about racism.

The England players and managers, along with football clubs big and small, have the chance to get heard in the media, in politics and by the platforms themselves in a way that other civic society voices cannot. So this weekend, the social media platforms will be emphasising their commitment to working with their valued partners in football to tackle the issue collectively.

They have the potential to make a great team in the cause of tackling racism – but Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can’t be part of a campaign against racism while they hold on to their pro-racism rules.

Sunder Katwala is director of the independent think tank British Future, and remains a fan of Everton football club.