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How Facebook failed to stem racist abuse of England’s soccer players

Facebook executives also privately acknowledge that racist speech against English soccer players is likely to continue.

By: New York Times |
Updated: August 11, 2021 3:32:44 pm
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Written by Ryan Mac and Tariq Panja

In May 2019, Facebook asked the organizing bodies of English soccer to its London offices off Regent’s Park. On the agenda: what to do about the growing racist abuse on the social network against Black soccer players.

At the meeting, Facebook gave representatives from four of England’s main soccer organizations — the Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Association — what they felt was a brushoff, two people with knowledge of the conversation said. Company executives told the group that they had many issues to deal with, including content about terrorism and child sex abuse.

A few months later, Facebook provided soccer representatives with an athlete safety guide, including directions on how players could shield themselves from bigotry using its tools. The message was clear: It was up to the players and the clubs to protect themselves online.

The interactions were the start of what became more than a two-year campaign by English soccer to pressure Facebook and other social media companies to rein in online hate speech against their players. Soccer officials have since met numerous times with the platforms, sent an open letter calling for change and organized social media boycotts. Facebook’s employees have joined in, demanding that it to do more to stop the harassment.

The pressure intensified after the European Championship last month, when three of England’s Black players were subjected to torrents of racial epithets on social media for missing penalty kicks in the final game’s decisive shootout. Prince William condemned the hate, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened regulation and fines for companies that continued to permit racist abuse. Inside Facebook, the incident was escalated to a “Site Event 1,” the equivalent of a companywide five-alarm fire.

Yet as the Premier League, England’s top division, opens its season Friday, soccer officials said that the social media companies — especially Facebook, the largest — hadn’t taken the issue seriously enough and that players were again steeling themselves for online hate.

“Football is a growing global market that includes clubs, brands, sponsors and fans who are all tired of the obvious lack of desire from the tech giants to develop in-platform solutions for the issues we are dealing with daily,” said Simone Pound, head of equality, diversity and inclusion for the Professional Footballers’ Association, the players’ union.

The impasse with English soccer is another instance of Facebook’s failing to solve speech problems on its platform, even after it was made aware of the level of abuse. While Facebook has introduced some measures to mitigate the harassment, soccer officials said they were insufficient.

Social media companies aren’t doing enough “because the pain hasn’t become enough for them,” said Sanjay Bhandari, the chair of Kick It Out, an organization that supports equality in soccer.

This season, Facebook is trying again. Its Instagram photo-sharing app is expected to roll out new features Wednesday to make racist material harder to view, according to an internal document obtained by The New York Times. Among them, one will let users hide potentially harassing comments and messages from accounts that either don’t follow or recently followed them.

“The unfortunate reality is that tackling racism on social media, much like tackling racism in society, is complex,” Karina Newton, Instagram’s global head of public policy, said in a statement. “We’ve made important strides, many of which have been driven by our discussions with groups being targeted with abuse, like the U.K. football community.”

But Facebook executives also privately acknowledge that racist speech against English soccer players is likely to continue. “No one thing will fix this challenge overnight,” Steve Hatch, Facebook’s director for Britain and Ireland, wrote last month in an internal note that The Times reviewed.

Some players appear resigned to the abuse. Four days after the European Championship final, Bukayo Saka, 19, one of the Black players who missed penalty kicks for England, posted on Twitter and Instagram that the “powerful platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages” and called it a “sad reality.”

Around the same time, Facebook employees continued to report hateful comments to their employer on Saka’s posts in an effort to get them taken down. One that was reported — an Instagram comment that read, “Bro stay in Africa” — apparently did not violate the platform’s rules, according to the automated moderation system. It stayed up.

Much of the racist abuse in English soccer has been directed at Black superstars in the Premier League, such as Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. About 30% of players in the Premier League are Black, Bhandari said.

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