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Social Media: a new site for racism in football

Irrespective of the credibility of claims that racist abuse has been largely eradicated from football stadiums, there is growing evidence of a large volume of abuse circulating among the ‘prosumers’ (producers and consumers) of social media, say Professor Jonathan Long and Dr Dan Kilvington in today's blog post.

Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion organisation, has developed an app to allow fans to report incidents of discriminatory abuse and behaviour.

Of the reports (by all means) in 2014/15, 42% related to abuse on social media. Brandwatch, a social intelligence and analytics company, was commissioned to research football-related discrimination on social media.  Last season (August 2015 – May 2016) discriminatory posts averaged 667 per day, a substantial increase from the 551 of the previous season.  21% related to race, 19% were Islamophobic and 6% were antisemitic (others related to gender, sexual orientation and disability).

Of all the social media, Twitter is the worst in terms of the number of abusive messages, because it is open and offers anonymity.  People feel emboldened and disinhibited by apparent anonymity and a lack of retribution. Although there are few arrests for abusive behaviour at stadiums, there are even fewer in relation to abuse traded on social media. This is partly because of the lack of resources, skills, knowledge and experience the police and Kick It Out have to operate in this area. Of the 125 incidents, Kick It Out thought serious enough to report to the police in 2013/14, only a quarter were responded to and of them only one was prosecuted. The 56 day custodial sentence meted out to a student, Liam Stacey, for repeated abuse of Fabrice Muamba, who nearly died on the pitch because of heart failure, is unique.

In his talk, From the Stands to Social Media: the changing nature of racism in football, Dan Kilvington also drew on his own research, which has highlighted how a tolerance now exists within stadiums. Fans are much less likely to shout anything overtly racist in the stands because anti-racist initiatives and policies have been enacted; the nature of football fandom has changed while social norms have also shifted so to some extent crowds police themselves. Discrimination, however, has not been eradicated from the consciousness of supporters and we are seeing racist sentiments online, across social networks sites, with Twitter being the most commonly used.

Dan’s co-authored book,Sport, Racism and Social Media, critically investigates how fans, players, clubs and sports journalists use social media within football, cricket, boxing, ice hockey and basketball. The research suggested that the different nature of communication in online as opposed to offline worlds resulted in disinhibition and thus encouraged hate-speech.

So what’s to be done? When concluding his talk, Dan put forward three areas for reform.

First, the management of football needs to be reviewed. Kick It Out may be the leading anti-discriminatory body in football in the UK, but it is able to employ just one full time officer to investigate hate-speech online: more personnel and resources are needed if we are to see real progress. Football’s governing bodies have been slow to react to this issue and the Football Association, Professional Footballers’ Association and English Premier League need to pool resources in this fight.

Second, social network sites should be doing more to combat hate-speech. Twitter introduced a report abuse button in 2013 as well as a new filtering system in 2015, but have been rightly critical of their own work to curb online abuse. They could do worse than to adopt one of the recommendations in Dan’s book and develop an algorithm to detect and highlight discriminatory behaviour by users.

Third, the legal system should be scrutinised in light of the way social media transcend nations as a global phenomenon. Both the US and European models advocate and protect free speech, though the latter offers more balance and protection with anti-discrimination measures. There still appears to be a lack of any clear, strategic plan to combat online hate-speech. As Dan pointed out, the police are not resolving the incidents that are being reported to them. He suggested that the police force, like Kick It Out, needs to find the resources necessary to invest in challenging this particular problem.

Kick It Out is also running its own campaign, Klick It Out. This highlights discrimination online and encourages users to recognise the consequences of their cyberspace actions. Propagating hate online does have real consequences and real victims, and offenders could face real punishments.

Dan Kilvington was giving a talk at Leeds Town Hall as part of the Leeds Cultural Conversations series, presented by Leeds Beckett University and Leeds City Council in association with Palgrave Macmillan.

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About the Authors

Dr Daniel Kilvington

Dan's research interests include anti-racism, social media and sport. His book 'Sport and Discrimination' draws on examples from football, rugby, cricket, tennis, climbing, the Olympics and the Paralympics to explore racism, sexism, homophobia, disability and the role of the media in both perpetuating and tackling discrimination in sport.

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Leeds Beckett University

Professor Jonathan Long

Professor Jonathan Long, an expert in leisure policy who previously worked in the Carnegie Faculty at Leeds Beckett University.

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