Ofcom chief slams social media giants over Euro 2020 racist messages

Melanie Dawes vows to weed out online abuse and enforce new powers to fine platforms for slow response

The head of Britain’s communications regulator will vow to take on social media firms over their failure to weed out online abuse this week, as she condemns their lack of success in dealing with the racism aimed at three England footballers.

The abuse aimed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after they missed penalties in England’s Euro 2020 final loss has led to a huge outpouring of support for the trio. However, they have also been targeted by a stream of racist messages and tropes that have plagued their social media accounts.

In her first intervention on the episode, Melanie Dawes, chief executive of Ofcom, will make clear that she will deploy new powers set to be handed to the body to force social media companies into swifter action. In a keynote speech on Mondayshe will state that the need for regulation of the social media giants “has come into even sharper focus”.

“Some of our incredible England football team were subjected to racist abuse on the major social media platforms,” she will say. “There is no place in our society for racism, whether it happens online or offline and, by their own admission, the platforms failed to do enough to remove these appalling comments at a critical national moment. They simply must do far better than this in the future.

“When Ofcom has the power to regulate online safety, we will hold the social media platforms to account on abuse like this. They must be much more transparent about the rules they have in place to deal with it, and we will act to make sure those rules are properly enforced.”

Under major changes to the powers it has at its disposal to regulate social media companies, Ofcom is expected to be handed the ability to fine them for inaction as part of reforms included in a forthcoming online safety bill. However, prominent figures who have received online abuse insist the legislation does not go far enough.

Dawes will warn of a clear distrust aimed at social media companies, adding that there is “no transparency and no consistency about the rules and algorithms – how free speech is underpinned while harmful and abusive content is tackled and prevented from going viral”. She will add: “By bringing accountability and transparency into this area for the first time we can protect those great advances while building a safer life online for everyone.”

It comes after Adam Mosseri, the chief executive of Instagram, owned by Facebook, conceded last week that mistakes had been made by the company’s technology, which allowed some abusive messages to be published. Thousands of separate messages are understood to have been received by the players after last Sunday’s defeat. Messages included emojis of monkeys and bananas that were still being posted days after the game.

Mosseri said its moderating technology had temporarily been “mistakenly marking some of these as benign comments, which they are absolutely not”. He added: “It is absolutely not OK to send racist emojis, or any kind of hate speech, on Instagram.”

Facebook has revealed that it has been working with police in the UK to provide details of the users who have been sending abuse. Saka has said that he knew he would receive racist messages after missing the penalty. “To the social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: I don’t want any child or adult to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me, Marcus and Jadon have received,” he wrote this week. “I knew instantly the kind of hate I was about to receive and that is a sad reality that your powerful platforms are not doing enough to stop these [hate] messages,” he said.

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Michael Savage

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