Why online abuse of England’s footballers is a problem for us all

Analysis: enabled by multibillion dollar platforms, hatred and racism have an impact across wider society

England’s players don’t need to be told about the abuse they receive online. They’ve been speaking publicly about it for years. In 2021 the issue has come to a head, with the game’s governing bodies uniting behind the players and calling repeatedly for tougher action, from both government and, especially, tech companies.

What the Guardian’s research into the abuse directed at players during the current European Championship shows is just how commonplace it is. Analysis of thousands of messages did reveal clear racist content of the type that rightly has made headlines when directed at Premier League players previously. But it also uncovered a persistent pulse of anger targeted at both players and the manager, Gareth Southgate.

Football has called for tougher action on the former and hopes for education on the latter. Of the explicitly racist messages that were found, captured by Hope Not Hate at the time of the match before being passed to the Guardian for analysis, all were removed from Twitter by the time the research was published. The speed with which such material is removed from platforms remains a contentious issue for those in the game, however. Many observe a difference between the speed with which racist abuse is removed and the alacrity with which action is taken against material that breaches copyright. There is also a further concern over the ability of users who create racist content to continue posting, either after serving a time-limited suspension or under a new account.

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It should be noted that Twitter is not the only social media platform which has a visible problem with abusive content. Instagram, for example, has come in for substantial criticism over the abuse players receive, especially in one-to-one direct messages. Twitter, however, is where live conversation takes place around events and offers an insight into the nature of the hatred that players are subject to.

During the first two England games, against Croatia and Scotland, a number of tweets attacked players for taking the knee. The messages were not about race, at least not explicitly, but they often attacked black players for what was a perceived association with Black Lives Matter. These messages show how football players can become lightning rods for broader societal issues.

Across all three matches, however, the most common type of message was uncomplicated: abusing a player (and the manager) for their actions on the field of play. This is something probably as old as the game itself, but social media not only permanently captures hate that might once have disappeared into the air, it can amplify it too.

This is where the issue of education comes in. Under the banner “Hope United” a number of prominent footballers, including Marcus Rashford and Lauren James of England and Scotland’s Andy Robertson, have lent their faces to a BT campaign. The aim of the campaign is to tackle “online hate” in its broadest sense and it advocates a series of short nudge-style measures to stop people from posting in anger. These ideas include limiting time on social media, pausing before posting and, in the words of Lucy Bronze, “imagining my nan reads everything I write”.

Such measures might seem a little inconsequential in the face of multibillion dollar machines that appear to nurture a dynamic which often ends in hateful confrontation. But to read the messages directed to and about England players is to see people reacting angrily in the moment. Showing them both the consequences of their messages (the impact it has on the people who receive them) and simple means to stop that from happening, are actions that could have a positive effect and should be more commonly known.

There is self-interest in footballers taking a stand, or a knee, against online hate. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is also true that the national sport receives an enormous, probably disproportionate, amount of national attention. That the issues which afflict the game should reflect those that also trouble society, should not be surprising. What happens to English footballers happens on a smaller scale to many other people in the country and the processes by which they occur are similar too. Acknowledging the abuse footballers face and taking it seriously could have benefits for us all.


Paul MacInnes

The GuardianTramp

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