Racial abuse of England players exposes deep societal fractures and the need for change

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Farah Lalani, Community Curator, Media, Entertainment and Information Industries, World Economic Forum & Hesham Zafar, Community Curator, Media, Entertainment, and Information Industries, World Economic Forum


  • After England lost in the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, online abuse was targeted at three Black players, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
  • This incident reveals a larger societal problem of racism in sports and online.Here are four ways to combat harassment and racial abuse online.
  • After England lost against Italy in a close final at the 2020 UEFA Euro Football Championship, online racial abuse was targeted at three Black England players, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, who missed their penalty kicks in the final shootout.

    The England Football Association, FIFA, London’s Metropolitan Police, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William were among those to issue solidarity statements and condemn the reckless online behaviour of certain individuals.

    In an Instagram post, Sir Lewis Hamilton, an influential Black sporting figure and Formula 1’s seven-time world champion, voiced his condemnation of the attack and the underlying issues faced by minorities in sport: “The pressure to deliver is felt by every sportsperson but when you are a minority representing your country this is a layered experience. Success would feel like a double victory, but a miss feels like a two-fold failure when it’s compounded with racist abuse… We must work towards a society that doesn’t require Black players to prove their value or place in society only through victory.”

    Twitter reportedly removed more than 1,000 tweets and permanently suspended accounts that targeted abuse at the England players, as did Facebook/Instagram. A real estate service provider suspended an employee as they looked into racist tweets, and a right wing political commentator and comedian also faced scrutiny following their comments.

    But despite this outpouring of support, there is still much to be done to address the larger societal issues of racism in sports and create safe digital spaces.

    The bigger picture of racism and sports

    This is not the first time fans have turned to social media platforms or displayed abhorrent behaviour tied to sporting outcomes. For example, studies have shown that domestic violence surges after a football match ends: one study found that reports of domestic violence in the north-west of England during three football World Cups went up by 26% when the national team won or drew, and by 38% when the team lost.

    Sports has also been at the centre of stories about racial profiling and discrimination at all levels. For example, during and before the Euro 2020, the England team kneeled before kick-off in solidarity against racism and inequality while some fans booed this gesture.

    In addition, Rashford, who has helped British schools tackle child hunger, has constantly highlighted the racist abuse that continues to be targeted towards him.

    How to tackle online harassment and racial abuse

    A new World Economic Forum report on digital safety outlines how to address such instances of online harassment.

    New legislation: While Facebook, Twitter and other platforms can set their own policies about what speech is allowed based on their own terms and values, they must abide by the local laws in which they operate. Different countries have taken varying approaches to the legality of hate speech, and many have called for new legislation to be able to be able to hold perpetrators to account for their comments.

    Human rights experts point out that speech should not impede on the human rights of others; targeted harassment is designed to silence or cause victims to self‑censor. Therefore, unabridged speech without regard to harm can actually suppress speech, particularly for vulnerable groups.

    Even worse, this speech and the ideology that leads to this expression can fuel attacks on immigrants and other minorities as was seen in the Christchurch terrorist attack. Combatting hate speech and online racial abuse based on characteristics such as race, gender and other identity characteristics is a fundamental step in stopping this violence.

    Detection and enforcement: The Metropolitan police are now investigating the perpetrators of the online racial abuse, but this is unlikely to be an easy task. Given that many internet products do not require identity verification, pinpointing the culprits could be complicated. Even when the identities of suspected criminals are discovered, the challenge of prosecution and extradition across regional and national borders can prove defeating.

    Closer collaboration between social media companies and law enforcement, as well as a fundamental assessment of the tensions between online privacy and safety, need to be resolved in order to better detect and enforce actions on those responsible for perpetrating harmful content.

    Private sector responsibility and safety measures: Social media companies have worked to tackle abuse on their platforms. For example, Instagram rolled out a new tool to automatically filter out abusive DMs, which is targeted at celebrities and public figures. However, current moderation mechanisms, measures for safety and complain protocols do not go far enough in protecting users.

    When it comes to harmful content, there is currently no industry‑wide accepted measure of user safety on digital platforms. Measures such as “prevalence”, defined by one product as user views of harmful content as a proportion of all views, does not reflect the important nuance that certain groups – based on their gender, race, ethnicity and other factors – may be more exposed to harmful content. In addition, more emphasis needs to be placed on “Safety By Design” so that tackling abuse and harm is a forethought rather than an afterthought.

    New accountability framework: Players and sports personnel have often urged social media platforms to assume more responsibility in combatting these issues, which can have devastating impacts on players’ mental health, and wellbeing in society. Some governments are moving to a “duty of care” framework in order to address the responsibility of digital platforms in the content and activity that is carried out on their sites.

    The regulatory framework that is needed to improve responsibility without severely hampering user-generated content, market innovation, and competition, requires further international collaboration.

    Coming together for a more inclusive future

    Sports can be a force for cohesion but the fundamental issues causing fractures in society need to be better addressed. The Power of Media Taskforce on DE&I, comprised of leading sports leagues and media organizations, is committed to fostering industry commitment on the creation and distribution of more inclusive content, and seeks to leverage the reach of media platforms to broadcast important messages that promote equality and bring us together.

    While efforts are underway to address online safety in different regions, there is more to be done at a global level to help address all forms of abuse and harmful content online. Effective regulatory frameworks to moderate data and content across social media platforms are required, as well as better education and awareness of the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive environment for society. The recently launched Global Coalition for Digital Safety aims to drive forward work to address these issues.

    Sports organizations have a unique opportunity to influence, educate, and express positive views given their emotional connection to fans – doing so in a way that bridges rather than exacerbates divides will be key to ensuring a safer more inclusive future for all.

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