Last weekend, Premier League sides, media organisations, and sporting and political figures adhered to a social media boycott held to recognise the failure of sites such as Twitter and Facebook to tackle racism in football. From Friday to Monday, only a handful of organisations didn’t go along with the idea.
One journalist was clearly sticking to the boycott until the news broke about Manchester United fans protesting against the Glazer family’s ownership of their club, causing their game against Liverpool to be postponed, at which point the journalist returned to Twitter to cover it, highlighting the inanity of the whole performance.
This is at least the fourth such boycott that I’ve been aware of in the last ten years. The tactic has been tried by white feminists, black women, minority communities and now black footballers. The intentions are good but corporations will not solve the problem.
Twitter could do more to remove racist posts but chooses not to. It could have a functioning complaints and reporting system manned and monitored by human beings. Instead, the work is left to algorithms created by people who don’t experience racism.
Some campaigners argue that it should be impossible to register anonymously on social media. This may sound reasonable but most online racism doesn’t come from anonymous accounts. Focusing on the crudest forms of abuse means ignoring the bigotry that carries a veneer of respectability. There’s no need to hide your racism behind an anonymous Twitter handle when the government can say, against all the available evidence, that institutional racism doesn’t exist.
Perhaps Twitter will react to the boycott by introducing into its algorithm an automatic suspension for any account that uses the racial slur ‘ni**er’. But it won’t be able to differentiate between the use of the word by black people and by racists. This inability to consider context means a step that looks helpful on paper will turn out to be counterproductive, with black people ending up on the wrong side of the algorithm. It has already happened to me and other black people I know. It isn’t unique to racism. It happened after the boycott over online misogyny. It happened after the backlash over online transphobia.
Profit-making companies are not set up to fight for human rights. They won’t do anything that threatens their bottom line. Appearing to champion our dignity and liberty is a marketing ploy, regardless of whether their staff truly believe in such causes. Nike backs Colin Kaepernick in publicity campaigns, but it is happy to exploit the global poor to drive down its overheads. Lasting social change can only be brought about by people who are willing to fight against the status quo.
Platforms like Twitter are vessels for ignorance and hate. But so are newspapers, including some of the papers that joined the boycott last weekend. What does it mean to be told that the online abuse of Raheem Sterling is so intolerable that social media must be boycotted, when the newspaper that says so has been attacking him for years, criticising his ‘obscene’ tattoos or calling him ‘greedy’ because he bought his mother a house? It’s hard for @FirstNameBunchofNumbers to realise he should stop being racist just because he gets banned from Twitter, when he can open up a tabloid or click on its website and see the same attitudes being expressed, only in more euphemistic language.
It costs nothing for clubs’ official social media accounts to join a temporary boycott but what are they doing to educate their fans – locally, nationally and internationally? How much attention is given to the way they operate? Clubs are happy to take a general stand against racism, but when they might have to face the consequences of their players being punished – as with John Terry at Chelsea in 2012 or Luis Suarez at Liverpool in 2011 – their newfound sense of solidarity yields to the instinct to protect their own.
When Bernardo Silva compared a black teammate to a racist caricature in 2019, he received a one-match ban and his manager went on to defend him. When Edinson Cavani was suspended in November 2020 for using the word ‘negrito’ on Instragram, the Premier League could have taken the opportunity to explain, to both the player and fans, why his use of the term, even as an endearment, is at odds with the culture of the league. The sport’s adjudicating body seemed to have learned nothing from the Suarez case in 2011, and hadn’t developed their own understanding of racism. The only person who acted well after the incident was Cavani himself, who immediately apologised and removed the offensive post.
Of greater concern, there were no repercussions for clubs that broke with the Premier League’s decision to kneel before games following last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. As a result we were faced with the spectacle of Milwall fans protesting against a campaign to highlight racism by booing black players who knelt. Milwall have so not faced any sanctions for the behaviour of their fans, or for their decision to break with the protest.
As Manchester United fans showed last Sunday, when people unite with a clear objective, they can cause real disruption. What would the equivalent of forcing a game to be postponed look like for social media? A protest outside Twitter HQ? Is something similar even possible online?
The problem of racism in football isn’t going to be solved until the grassroots – the fans, wider society – have the difficult conversations that can effect lasting change. Waiting for Twitter or Facebook to act on our behalf is relinquishing power to those who are not responsible enough to wield it.