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13 July 2021

Who is behind the online abuse of black England players and how can we stop it?

If we want to stop racism, we don’t need to stop or change social media – we need to stop or change people.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

If the sense of déjà vu at watching England lose a major football match on penalties was worryingly familiar after 55 years of hurt, the torrent of online racist abuse that followed was even more depressingly repetitious. It was only five months ago that Marcus Rashford – who, like many England players before him, missed a penalty – faced a torrent of abuse for supposedly underperforming at a single match

England manager Gareth Southgate promptly condemned the racial abuse of his players, which was directed through Instagram and Twitter. But he also added a notable caveat. “I know a lot of that [abuse] has come from abroad, people that track those things have been able to explain that,” he said

Sanjay Bhandari, chair of Kick It Out, the campaign group against racism in football, says that data from the last two seasons of football shows around 70 per cent of abuse originates overseas. “These are not football fans,” he says. “They are people who have never been inside an English football ground.” In part that’s because – while our problem with racism is acute – we don’t have a monopoly on being morons. Italian and French football fans are as likely, if not more likely, to abuse black players with monkey emojis.

Some suggest that Russian or Chinese trolls may have weaponised discontent around football to intensify political and social tensions in England. “It will be totally unsurprising if trolls started sharing bad stuff for these players, given that their goal is to sow public discord, and this is an excellent opportunity to do so,” says Savvas Zannettou of the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany, who studies information warfare online. But to date there is little evidence of what social media platforms call coordinated, inauthentic behaviour.

The abuse is, however, testament to the global nature of football and to the power of the English game. Brighton striker Neal Maupay received digital death threats after scoring against Arsenal in June 2020. The person who sent them was given a nine-month probation order this month. The 19-year-old perpetrator wasn’t from Sunderland or Somerset, but Singapore. “It is, from a perpetrator perspective,” says Bhandari, “a global pandemic.”

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Edleen John, the Football Association’s co-partner for equality, diversity and inclusion, says the issue lies predominantly with social media platforms. “People are able to post vile, discriminatory and other abuse, and because of the way things are set up, there are no significant, real-world consequences for those actions,” she says. “That’s just not good enough.” Facebook and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

But the answer is not, despite the carping of besuited, tech-illiterate public figures, to make us all verify our identities online. As one estate agent whose Twitter account used the N-word against England’s black players may have demonstrated, people aren’t always afraid to attach their offline identities to their online utterances. (The man from whose Twitter profile the tweets were shared has claimed he was hacked and has reported the matter to the police. He has been suspended by his employer, Savills, pending an investigation.) 

Nor was the mural of Rashford in Withington, Manchester, where he grew up, defaced digitally. Someone walked up with a spray can and spread hate. “It is worrying to see how some of the conversations happening right now imply that racism exists because of technology, or that racism is the by-product of these digital platforms,” says Francesca Sobande, a lecturer in digital media studies at Cardiff University. “Racism has existed so much longer than these platforms have been around.”

Requiring people to provide proof of identity to social platforms, even if it is not published, risks harming whistleblowers, the marginalised, and victims of abuse. Cyberstalking is a major issue faced by too many and victims often feel unable to come forward if there is any risk of being identified. Those who propose a simple fix for a complex problem – including big-name personalities on social media with verified profiles – are doing so from a position of privilege without any consideration of those with different experiences to them. 

By seeking to put a sticking plaster over a nasty leg-break, they mask the real issue: racists will be racists, regardless of whether they have anonymity. “The only racist comment that turned up on my social media timeline was from someone who would have happily told me the same in the pub,” says Eerke Boiten, professor of cybersecurity at De Montfort University. “I think the current backlash against online racism is good, but diverts from consistently racist media and politicians.”

Banning certain phrases or emojis won’t work either, as anyone who knows what 1488 stands for or has read the dictionary definition of “dog whistle” knows. “I feel like a buzzkill for saying this, but these changes alone will not end racism,” says Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in digital media and society at the University of Sheffield. Racism existed before social media and still has plenty of offline iterations. The strictest digital rules in the world sadly won’t stamp out those thoughts and actions.

We’ve identified the issue  that a small but vocal minority of people have awful opinions and feel able to express them – but we haven’t addressed the cause. Social media has many faults and its feeble response to repeated cycles of racist abuse is one of the biggest. But people aren’t racist because of social media – they’re racist on social media. If we want to stop racism, we don’t need to stop or change social media – at least not alone. We need to stop or change people. 

And yes, that includes the Prime Minister and Home Secretary.