Rio Ferdinand says he is BAFFLED by the lack of action over online abuse, as football accuses Twitter and Instagram of being more interested in making money than stopping the ‘pitchfork mob’ of racists

Posted: 12th September 2021

  • Rio Ferdinand was giving evidence to a Parliamentary committee of MPs
  • Former Manchester United player described how he has to  explain to his children why people send him monkey emojis on his social media feeds
  • FA director of equality, Edleen John, accused big tech of prioritising profit over safeguarding footballers and others involved at all levels of the national game
  • ‘What we are seeing from companies is significant resistance,’ she said 

Former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand has said he is baffled by the response of social media companies to vile online racist abuse.

The ex-player, turned pundit, has told MPs he has to explain to his children why he has received banana and monkey emojis on his social media accounts, with abusers acting with impunity.

Ferdinand was giving evidence to a Parliamentary committee examining the Draft Online Harms Bill, which is designed to force big tech firms to take responsibility.

He, the FA and Kick It Out said there was little sign that social media companies were willing to act on racism and the law was much needed, albeit with some amendments to the current proposals.

‘It baffles me, it is disheartening,’ Ferdinand said. ‘The data is telling us [racism] is here and it is back.

‘We saw in the Euros when three black players missed penalties… the first thing I thought was let’s see what happens on social media. I expected what happened to happen. That is the disappointing thing.’

In developments this week:

  • A BBC investigation revealed this week that the majority of people who sent abuse to the three players were not England fans and they lived abroad
  • The BBC also found that 79 of 105 accounts flagged for abusing the players were still not deleted or suspended six weeks later.
  • Yesterday, the Professional Footballers’ Association said Twitter has failed to act three months after abusive accounts were presented to the tech firm
  • Today, football authorities likened online abusers to a ‘pitchfork mob’ acting with impunity, while giving evidence to MPs

In some of the most recent – and abhorrent cases – abuse was sent to Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho on social media after they missed penalties in the Euro 2020 final defeat by Italy this summer.

Boris Johnson and Prince William condemned the mindless racists who bombarded the footballers with monkey, gorilla and banana emojis.

Ferdinand and the football authorities believe the social media companies, like Twitter and Instagram, where most abuse occurs, could use technology to tackle the problem, as they do with other issues such as the use of video outside of copyright.

‘There is AI there for so many aspects on social media platforms…’ continued Ferdinand. ‘Copyright works… [but], we can’t find it here for certain words or certain emojis or terminologies that are used on social media platforms. That is baffling. The technology is there.’

Ferdinand and the FA are particularly concerned about the anonymity of users who can hurl racist abuse at players with no prospect of repercussions.

‘Perpetrators are allowed stand behind a curtain,’ said Ferdinand. ‘They are anonymous. That is an absolute problem. If you threw a banana on a pitch there would be repercussions but online you can post a banana to a black player with racist connotations and you will be fine. How is that right? It can’t be.

‘I have to sit there and have breakfast with my kids and explain to them what the monkey emoji means in that context what the banana means. [They ask] ‘why is there a banana on your post?

‘Me having to do that in this day and age when there is AI and resources available… you would like to think these people would put those things in place.’

The football authorities have spent years working with social media platforms to prevent abuse, but it appears their patience is now running out.

Sanjay Bhandari, the chairman of Kick It Out, football’s anti racism campaign, likened online abuse of players to a ‘pitchfork mob turning up in your living room and spitting in your eyes’ and you are ‘unable to do anything about it’.

FA director of corporate affairs, Edleen John, has said she is frustrated at a lack of action by social media companies over online abuse

He said the abuse of elite players was only the tip of the iceberg and it was a problem that stretched from the top of the game all the way down to grassroots.

Edleen John, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Director at the FA said she believed the social media companies were more interested in making money than tackling abuse.

‘We have been engaging with social media organisations for years now and what we consistently achieve are platitudes,’ she said.

‘We get promises of things that are going to be addressed. We get told that of course racism and discrimination of any kind is a priority and what we are seeing is that online abuse is a golden goose for social media organisations.

‘They are able to amplify messages, able to make sure the reach is broad, far and wide but actually they are not tackling the problem we are seeing across the football landscape.’

John added: ‘What we are seeing from social media companies is significant resistance. A desire to just focus on a business model and making money and it is a mechanism by which they are not putting in place protections that are so desperately needed in the online space.’

The Online Harms Bill threatens huge fines for companies that fail to discharge a ‘duty of care’ to users, but the Ferdinand, Bhandari and John, all agreed it needed to be amended to address the anonymity of users.

John said there was a significant problem with users creating ‘burner accounts’ to abuse and then shutting them down immediately, protecting their real identities.

In addition, Bhandari and John want specific protections for minority groups and a definition of ‘legal but harmful’ content.

Yesterday, Rio Ferdinand’s brother, Anton, gave evidence to a different committee focused on Home Affairs, on the same subject.

He challenged social media companies to take action over racist abuse before a high-profile footballer – or one of their family – commits suicide because of online persecution.

At that hearing, Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy and philanthropy at Twitter, told the committee: “The burden shouldn’t be on victims of abuse to report these tweets to us.

“We’ve got to a place where by the end of last season about 95 per cent of the abusive posts we were taking down using machine learning. Beyond that, we have partnerships with the clubs, the Football Association, the Premier League and others so that anything that doesn’t get detected they are able to report it directly to our enforcement teams.

“Marvin hit the nail on the head when he said the challenge is the ease with which people can contact footballers and that’s where we’re starting to focus a lot of our work.”

Minshall admitted Twitter and other platforms had been thinking for too long about swiftly removing offensive posts.

She said the question now being asked was: “How can we stop these (offensive) tweets being sent in the first place?”

Minshall was asked about the issue of anonymity online.

“You can’t be anonymous. If you sign up for a Twitter account, we ask for your full name, your date of birth, and your email address or phone number, one of which you have to verify,” she said.

“There’s no shield from our rules or from criminal liability.”

Tara Hopkins, director of public policy EMEA at Instagram, also said 95 per cent of hateful content was proactively removed.

However, committee chair Yvette Cooper highlighted abuse she had found as recently as Tuesday directed at players such as Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford, including monkey and gorilla emojis and posts containing nothing other than one extremely offensive racist word.

“Everything you have said to me seems like utter garbage compared to seeing these posts on the screen right now,” she said.

Hopkins said: “I am sorry that these posts are still up, they are clearly violating our policies.”

Source: ‘Twitter and Instagram more interested in money’ than stopping ‘pitchfork mob’ of racists | Daily Mail Online (September 2021)

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