Social media companies have become “havens for abuse” and must introduce measures to prevent offenders operating anonymously on their platforms, football’s leaders have said.
An open letter from all the game’s major governing bodies to Twitter and Facebook’s chief executives Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg says those platforms, along with Instagram which is owned by Facebook, must do more to stamp out abuse.
A host of individuals across the men’s and women’s professional game have been targeted in recent weeks, and the men at the top of the technology giants have been urged to put in place systems which enable the police to accurately identify account users when necessary.
The letter states: “We have had many meetings with your executives over the years but the reality is your platforms remain havens for abuse.
“Your inaction has created the belief in the minds of the anonymous perpetrators that they are beyond reach. The relentless flow of racist and discriminatory messages feeds on itself: the more it is tolerated by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, platforms with billions of users, the more it becomes normal, accepted behaviour.”
The letter was signed by Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham, his counterparts at the Premier League and the EFL, Richard Masters and Trevor Birch, the director of the women’s professional game Kelly Simmons, Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Gordon Taylor, League Managers Association chief executive Richard Bevan, referees’ chief Mike Riley and Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari.
Manchester United players Marcus Rashford, Axel Tuanzebe, Anthony Martial and Lauren James are among those who have been the targets of social media abuse, along with West Brom’s Romaine Sawyers and Chelsea defender Reece James, Lauren’s brother.
Newcastle manager Steve Bruce said on Thursday he had been made aware of social media users wishing him dead by his children, while referee Mike Dean has asked not to officiate a Premier League game this weekend after he received death threats.
The letter urges the platforms to ensure no user is “hounded off” their platforms because of their gender or the colour of their skin.
It calls on them to put in place mechanisms which filter or block posts containing racist or discriminatory material, operate “robust, transparent and swift” measures to take down any material which does get into circulation.
As well as an improved verification process which would make it easier for police to identify who the holder of an account is, the letter calls for users who engage in abusive behaviour to be barred from re-registering an account.
The platforms should “actively and expeditiously” assist investigating authorities in their attempts to identify abusers, the letter said.
The letter concludes: “Players, match officials, managers and coaches of any origin and background and at any level of football should be able to participate in the game without having to endure illegal abuse.
“We, the leaders of the game in English football, will do everything we can to protect them, but we cannot succeed until you change the ability of offenders to remain anonymous.
“We note the current assurances from Facebook that standards will be tightened, but far more is needed to drive change.
“We call for meetings with your organisations to discuss the evidence of abuse on your platforms, the action you are taking, and how you plan to directly address the matters outlined in this letter.”
Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said on Wednesday: “We’re introducing a new age of accountability for these (social media) companies through our upcoming Online Safety Bill and this could see huge fines for firms which fail to clearly and transparently protect their users.”
A Facebook company spokesperson said: “We don’t want hate and racism on our platforms and remove it when we find it. The new measures we announced yesterday, which include tougher action when we become aware of people breaking our rules in DMs (direct messages), further build on the work we do to tackle this.
“We are part of the working group convened by Kick it Out and will continue to work alongside all the industry bodies, the police and the Government to help tackle racism both on and offline.”
Twitter has also been contacted for a response to the football bodies’ letter.
On Thursday it was also announced that Uefa has opened disciplinary proceedings against two Romanian officials at the centre of racism allegations in a Champions League match last December.
Istanbul Basaksehir assistant coach Pierre Webo alleged racist language was used towards him during the group stage game against Paris St Germain on December 8th. The match was abandoned following the complaint.
Two members of the Romanian team of officials, fourth official Sebastian Coltescu and assistant referee Octavian Sovre, are being investigated for a potential breach of Article 11 of Uefa’s disciplinary regulations, European football’s governing body said.
The match resumed the following evening, with a different set of officials taking charge.
Webo, a former Cameroon international, told the BBC at the time: “I don’t want people to focus on me because of this, it will be a shame if I’m remembered for this. I’m ashamed of it to be truthful.
“These two or three days have been the most difficult of my career.”
Istanbul, who were already eliminated from the competition, went on to lose the match 5-1.
Article 11 of Uefa’s disciplinary regulations states that member associations, clubs and players must “comply with the principles of ethical conduct, loyalty, integrity and sportsmanship”.
Among the examples of acts which would breach those principles is conduct which is “insulting or otherwise violates the basic rules of decent conduct”, which “brings the sport of football and Uefa in particular into disrepute” and which “culpably causes a match to be interrupted or abandoned”.