‘Are they waiting for a tragedy?’ – Ferdinand questions lack of response to online racist abuse

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Anton Ferdinand
Anton Ferdinand was one of several witnesses to speak to the Home Affairs Committee

Anton Ferdinand has questioned whether it will take a tragedy for social media companies to act over online racist abuse.

Former West Ham defender Ferdinand was among a number of ex-players giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into online harm on Wednesday.

He said it was a “disgrace” that abuse he and many others have continued to report has been met with the response rules have not been broken.

“Social media is like a drug,” he said.

“It is built to make you addicted to it. You can’t put it down once you start scrolling.

“There is a mental health issue of not being able to escape it. My worry is, what are the social media companies waiting for?

“Are they waiting for a high-profile footballer to kill themselves, or a member of their family to commit suicide? Is that what they’re waiting for? Because if they’re waiting for that, it’s too late.

“This comes down to if they really want to make change? So far, their words are that they want to, but their actions are different.”

Former footballers Marvin Sordell and Lianne Sanderson were also witnesses at the inquiry, with ex-Watford forward Sordell saying social media offered a “‘free hit to damage people at their very core”.

“We’re heading down a very dangerous path,” he added. “We can’t just wait for something tragic to happen.”

‘Utter garbage’

Representatives of Twitter and Instagram also gave evidence. Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy and philanthropy at Twitter, said the company was starting to focus its work on the ease at which footballers can be contacted on social media.

“The burden shouldn’t be on victims of abuse to report these tweets to us,” she said.

Tara Hopkins, the director of public policy at Instagram, said 95% of hateful content was proactively removed on the platform.

But she was questioned by committee chair Yvette Cooper MP as to why racist abuse directed at Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford, after the Euro 2020 final in July, could still be seen as recently as Tuesday.

“These posts are from five, six, seven weeks ago. If any child following a footballer scrolls through the comments, they will see this abuse,” Cooper said.

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

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

Cooper also highlighted a tweet about “keeping the England team white”, which had been reported to Twitter, but was deemed not to be in breach of its rules.

“If those are the kinds of things that Twitter is saying are OK, it is little wonder that the professional footballers we heard from are so despairing,” she added.

“They aren’t seeing racism being removed and they’re having to experience it so much because Twitter is clearly not removing racist posts.”

‘ID requirement means people can’t hide’

Former England forward Sanderson said she had received racist, homophobic and sexist abuse on social media and believes asking users to provide identification, such as a passport number or driving licence number, is the “only way to stop it, because people can’t hide”.

It was a view echoed by Sordell, who said online abuse had contributed to his retirement from the game in 2019 at the age of 28.

While he understood some users could not use their real names on social media because of personal safety concerns, he added those accounts should still be identifiable in some way.

“You can take down profiles but then they can recreate one without even having to go through anything,” Sanderson said.

“I’m sure the same people that time and time again abuse me, they just recreate the account, because you can tell by the way they’re writing.”

In response, Minshall said 99% of accounts that sent racist abuse during the Euros were identifiable.

On the issues of requiring official identification, Hopkins said: “The Electoral Commission says there are 3.5m people in the UK alone who don’t have photo ID and members of those groups are often from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I’m very conscious on Instagram that we are a platform for a younger demographic, teenagers and people in their early 20s.

“A lot of teenagers do not have access to any kind of ID. We want to keep the platform open to all and be as inclusive as we possibly can be.”

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