Kick It Out chair urges Government to provide more online protection from abuse

The Government and social media companies have been urged to end “a culture of impunity” on online abuse days before the start of the World Cup.

Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari has written an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, along with Twitter and Facebook bosses Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, calling on them to provide greater online protection to football players, staff and fans.

The anti-discrimination group estimates discriminatory abuse could be viewed over two billion times during the finals, which works out at around 800 people witnessing abuse online every second of every day of the tournament, based on social engagement data from the last men’s World Cup in 2018.

Bhandari wrote: “We all hope that the social engagement around the tournament will be positive and that the people who play, watch and work in the game will be protected from racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other discriminatory abuse.

“However, to expect that would be the triumph of hope over bitter experience. We all know that abuse will happen. It is just a question of when, who is targeted, the scale and viciousness of the abuse and the scale of the harm it will cause.

“A culture of impunity has developed on social media with a lack of meaningful consequences. You have the ability to change this. We are calling on you to do so.”

The last appearance by the England men’s senior team in a major tournament – Euro 2020 – ended with online abuse being directed at three of the team’s black players in the wake of the penalty shoot-out defeat in the final against Italy.

Bukayo Saka was one of three England players who were targeted by online abuse after the Euro 2020 final last year
Bukayo Saka was one of three England players who were targeted by online abuse after the Euro 2020 final last year (Nick Potts/PA)

Bhandari’s letter, which has been endorsed by the EFL, the League Managers’ Association, the Football Supporters’ Association and Women In Football among others, highlights the rise in abuse in grassroots football.

Kick It Out research noted a 40 per cent increase in reports of discrimination in grassroots football in 2021-22 compared to the previous season, with a further increase of 50 per cent in the first three months of the current campaign.

“This abuse mirrors language that has become normalised online,” Bhandari wrote.

He urged Sunak to “move faster” on the Online Safety Bill, warning that the UK risked being left behind on protections from online abuse with the EU’s Digital Services Act set to come into force first.

Bhandari has set out five provisions he feels must be within the Bill to provide the regulator Ofcom with the ability to ensure harmful content, even if legal in the eyes of the law, is restricted from online platforms.

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell says the Government's
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell says the Government’s “failure to act” on online abuse has left players without protection (Peter Byrne/PA)

These are the inclusion of provisions around illegal content, making it illegal to say things online that are illegal in the real world, along with proposed new offences around rape and death threats, compelling social media companies to conduct risk assessments under Ofcom supervision, ensuring that harmful content is age-restricted, the introduction of improved user safeguards to help users block or filter out harmful content, and giving Ofcom the power to oversee social media companies’ compliance with their own terms and conditions.

Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell said: “The Government’s failure to act means racism and abuse has the green light, not the red card.

“The England squad, some of whom are still teenagers, will have no real protection against online abuse and harassment.

“Free speech does not mean online trolls should have free reign to target our England team with vile racism.

“The Tories are on the wrong side. They are failing to act on online safety, stripping the Online Safety Bill of its core purpose – to prevent online harms.

“The England team are showcasing our great country to the world. We will stick up for our England squad, and argue for a full Online Safety Bill to be brought back to Parliament urgently.”

Twitter boss Elon Musk says he wants the platform to be warm and welcoming to all
Twitter boss Elon Musk says he wants the platform to be warm and welcoming to all (Brian Lawless/PA)

Musk, who recently took over Twitter, has spoken about making his platform “warm and welcoming” but concerns have been raised over the decision to lay-off content moderation staff who track online abuse.

Bhandari’s letter asked Musk and Zuckerberg: “When can we expect the technology to be available on your platforms that enables us each to have the online experience that we wish to have?

“Many of us across sport are asking for a safer, more enjoyable online experience that is free from unwelcome abuse. We do not think that this is too much to ask.”