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14 July 2021

How to end the poison of online racism

To stop the rot we need to make social media companies legally liable for threats and incitement to violence.

By Paul Mason

So Boris Johnson called the tech companies in for a bollocking over the racist abuse of England’s black players? Actually he didn’t. The tech companies were already enjoying a freebie at Downing Street and Johnson tacked on a meeting, demanding they start implementing the aspects of the Online Harms Bill, which the government itself has delayed.

But that’s beside the point. Before we worry about racism on social media, we should worry about racism in society – because it’s not just rife, endemic and structural. It’s becoming virulent, nastier and normalised.

All discussions of racism have to start where the government does not want to go: with the recognition that, in a country such as the UK, which ran the slave trade and “owned” half the world in the form of a colonial empire, it has historic roots. As they chained, raped, starved and whipped their colonial subjects, before retiring to say their prayers and read the Bible, the question occurred to our ancestors: how can this be justified?

The burgeoning science of zoology was on hand to explain. Having arranged the natural world into a neat hierarchy of lower and higher species, apologists for slavery and empire did the same for homo sapiens, dividing us into races whose position in the early capitalist global hierarchy was determined by skull shape and skin colour. 

Robert Knox, a Scottish colonial doctor in South Africa, summed up the doctrine of scientific racism in 1850: “Human character, individual and national, is traceable solely to the nature of that race to which the individual or nation belongs.”

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The highest races, said Knox, were white Europeans, below them the darker Europeans of the Mediterranean, below them the “Gypsy, Copt, Jew and Hindoo” and – at the bottom of the evolutionary pile – black Africans, for whom Knox had a variety of insulting labels. Scientific racism was not just a rationale for human trafficking and land theft. It was a theory of history: the white races, by their cleverness, were destined to conquer and rule the rest. “With a deepening colour,” Knox wrote, “vanishes civilisation, the arts of peace, science, literature, abstract justice.”

These were the ideas taught not just to our great-great-grandparents, but still alive in the minds of the generation that fought both world wars. Why bother with them now? Because if you read the accounts of harassment and violence in and around Wembley during recent England games, it is clear that remnants of these 19th-century scientific racial hierarchies persist in the minds of 21st-century boneheads.

What they are defending, when they insult and threaten not just players of African and African-Caribbean origin, but Danish and Italian fans, or – as the journalist Jolyon Rubinstein reported – Jewish England fans, is a racial hierarchy in their heads, which awards them a structurally superior position.

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All statistics show that racialised structural inequality is real. Black people in Britain are nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people. At least 40 per cent of young people in prison are black or Asian. Twice as many black and Asian households live in persistent poverty compared to white households. White people receive consistently shorter jail sentences than black and Asian offenders. Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

Yet the government handpicked a committee of stooges to write a report disavowing the existence of structural racism. On the contrary, it said, it is white working-class people who are disadvantaged – a point reiterated by Tory MPs on the Education Select Committee.

The racism we are dealing with is not residual – a hangover from empire that is slowly fading – nor is it simply the passive ideological reflection of structural racism. It is something active, and growing, and deepening in its conviction.

In the first place, this is because we are facing a resurgent international far right, with access to money and networks. If you want to trace the slurs, gifs and memes to their source, go on the Telegram channels of the known fascist activists.

In addition, we are facing an Anglo-American conservative elite captured by xenophobic populism. Boris Johnson has discovered a winning formula: screw up, lie through your teeth and signal your support for a white English identity. Why else would he have refused to condemn those jeering at England players taking the knee?

Plus, we have a generation of people of colour who, through the law, social science and activism, have finally chosen to confront white people with the problem of their own personal and granular participation in racism, beyond the structural and the historic. It is these real, social and political factors that have, in the space of a decade, colonised the internet, turning it from a machine for spreading enlightenment into a machine for accelerating hate.   

There are three destructive mechanisms at work. The first is anonymity, which is most prevalent on Twitter and on the chans (anonymous bulletin boards) but tolerated at the margins on other platforms. 

Anonymity allows millions of fake identities to exist: bot accounts that can be programmed and controlled to amplify threats against real, named individuals. It also allows real people to threaten, harass, defame and insult their victims with impunity because they are untraceable, even by law enforcement. In the space of a decade, we have created alongside our real civil society, with its laws, customs and regulations, a virtual civil society in which the right to threaten, shame and lie about people is seen as sacrosanct.

The second mechanism amplifying racism is the algorithm. Algorithms are at the centre of the business model of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest: it is a machine, not your own brain, that decides what content you see. Numerous studies have revealed how the algorithms incentivise and reward hate. A New York Times investigation in 2019 found that “YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels in Brazil.”

Yet the algorithms of the tech giants, even when they are tweaked in response to criticism, remain totally unaccountable. Indeed, there is not even a public log of changes made. The algorithmic platforms, then, are probably the first technology in history for which there is no history.

The third problem is systematic irresponsibility. The tech companies respond to complaints about abusive content, or abusive users, like robotic sloths. Since they are not legally liable for the libels, threats and incitement to violence carried on their platforms, they can treat complaints lethargically, just as they did when the sluice gates of hate opened after the England-Italy match.

Cleaning up Big Tech, through new laws and regulations, won’t eradicate the deeper, offline problem of racist structures, attitudes and prejudices. But it will help, and it is doable.

First, we need to launch both a moral and political attack on anonymity. Liberal democracies are built on the foundations of real, identifiable humans. Yes, we vote in secret, but we do not vote anonymously. Yes, we have rights to free speech and association but as real people, not fake people.

There has always been anonymous communication in the offline world: the green-ink letter, the graffiti on Rashford’s mural, the fake leaflets distributed by Labour’s opponents in Batley.

But if you can’t eradicate it online, you can discourage it. One way would be to make all bulletin board communities that rely on anonymity – and here is where most of the fascist hate-speech and incitement is nurtured – unfindable and unhostable by the commercial sector. Yes, they will move to Russian servers; yes they will retreat to Telegram. But the virulent and exponential character of their communications will subside.

I can accept, as Chris Stokel-Walker argued yesterday (13 July) in the New Statesman, that forcing Twitter users to prove their identity “risks harming whistle-blowers, the marginalised, and victims of abuse”. But there are other risks that outweigh this – such as society collapsing under an avalanche of normalised racism and misogyny. We need to weigh the risks against each other, and take prudent actions.

It is not in the commercial interests of Twitter, nor in the interest of any real user, for there to be millions of bots. Nor do most of the fake and duplicate identities used by the determined trolls and fascists need to exist. Just as I can apply to take my name off the electoral register, I should be able to apply to take my real identity off Twitter. But anonymity should not be an automatic right.

The next step is to reclassify the major tech platforms as publishers. Then, as with the Daily Mail and its comments section, they would have to censor defamatory content, incitement and hate speech. The Online Harms Bill is a step in the right direction, but goes nowhere near far enough in categorising the big players as publishers.

As for the algorithms, while they will remain the intellectual property of the tech monopolies, we need a media regulator that can take real-time measurements of their effects and impacts. Just as we hold water companies to account by testing the rivers and lakes for sewage, so we should regularly measure the traffic driven to racist and misogynist content and trace its likely algorithmic source.

Above all, we need to move beyond an argument based on “rights”. The way to arbitrate between competing rights (to free expression and to personal security) is to frame this as a moral and ethical issue.

We need to convince a generation weaned on digital anonymity that it is virtuous to show your face, speak your mind, stand your ground and own your mistakes. That’s what Rashford, Sancho and Saka do every minute they are on the pitch. You cannot be a hero or heroine in any drama unless we know who you are.

[see also: The inclusive patriotism of Gareth Southgate’s team taught people like me how to be England fans]