Sarah Buitendach Contributing editor at FM
Picture: 123RF/TOMASZ TRYBUS
Picture: 123RF/TOMASZ TRYBUS

If you’re not glued to your Twitter stream or, alternatively, aren’t a devout football fan, you may have missed the 81-hour social media boycott that various British sporting bodies have just engaged in as a protest against online abuse.  

During the recent UK long weekend, the social media accounts of the country’s football associations went dark. In solidarity they were joined by the Lawn Tennis Association, the England & Wales Cricket Board and Premiership Rugby. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, Barcelona football god Lionel Messi and Prince William, who is a dedicated Aston Villa fan and president of the English Football Association, switched off Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and other sites. 

Big media organisations like Sky Sports also powered down. It was an orchestrated protest against toxic social media the likes of which we’ve never seen before. 

As The Guardian explains: “The Premier League, English Football League and the antiracism campaign Kick It Out are among those calling for fresh measures to tackle hate and discrimination — including a requirement for social media giants to display a warning if a user writes an abusive message, and to ask them to enter personal data if they wish to send it.” 

These organisations also want social media companies to submit a detailed quarterly report, outlining efforts they have made to prevent abuse, so they can be held more accountable.   It’s about time. Sports stars and celebrities are at the coalface of social media abuse, in part because sport elicits such violent emotions. So, you’ll have seen how extreme some of the sickening hatred levelled at sports people is. In the UK, a lot of the hate speech and virtual bullying is of the racist kind.

On Sky Sports, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said: “I’m very pleased we’ve made this boycott. I think it’s important. Ever since I’ve come here, we’ve been speaking … too often, about racism, discrimination and abuse.”   

He’s not exaggerating. According to The Sun, Manchester United’s own investigation found that the club has received 3,300 reports of social media abuse since September 2019 — most of it racist.   

Of course, it’s tempting to think that this social media blackout won’t do much beyond making people realise there is a problem. And it’s not like these organisations can leave these platforms for good — they rely heavily on social media for marketing their brands and communicating with fans. But, in the UK at least, there seems to be some desire to actually, erm, tackle the issue — and perhaps make social media platforms somewhat accountable for their users’ actions too.  

As Sky explains: “A bill on online safety is due before [the UK] parliament this year and is expected to set out a duty of care to which tech companies must adhere, with large financial penalties for those found to be in breach.”

Britain’s culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, told The Sun that the fines could be up to 10% of annual turnover. “For a company such as Facebook or YouTube, that could be billions,” he said.

The Guardian’s Sean Ingle highlights the work being done by a group called Sportradar, which is piloting projects to track down trolls at sports events. Once it has tracked down the trolls, it alerts the authorities and helps them pursue an appropriate course of action — from kicking the trolls off social media platforms to working with law enforcement to bring legal proceedings. 

Of course the response was different depending on the severity of the threat and location. But it helped the victims feel as if someone was watching their backs.”  

We don’t all bend it like Beckham and, equally, might not care about Sheffield United’s relegation in the slightest, but we’d all benefit from social media platforms where hatred and vitriol are kept in check and people are accountable for what they say. Let’s hope the boycott sends a strong message that this is “enough”.

* Buitendach is contributing editor at the FM

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