What impact has Swansea City’s social media boycott had and what can actually be done to tackle online abuse?

Swansea City staged a week-long social media blackout after repeated incidents of abuse of their players over online platforms Credit: PA Images

Swansea City have said they are pleased with the response to their week-long social media boycott and have thanked those who supported their actions.  

Accompanied by the hashtag ‘#EnoughisEnough’, Swansea announced last Thursday that they were staging a club-wide boycott of their official social media channels following repeated incidents of abuse of their players over online platforms including Facebook and Twitter. 

The club’s last post on Twitter before the boycott featured an extract from a press conference held by the men’s team manager, Steve Cooper, in which he said the social media blackout was a collective decision. 

"We’ve had three players in the last seven weeks racially abused on social media," Cooper said.

"We’ve had enough."

Following the seven-day silence, the club said it would "collectively continue this battle against online abuse and discrimination. We hope for change."

Several people have commended Swansea City’s actions and their attempts to hit back at the online abuse of their players. 

But just how effective could their week-long blackout turn out to be? 

Will the likes of Facebook and Twitter, huge multinational organisations who have repeatedly been criticised for a perceived lack of action against online abuse, take any notice? 

And is there a more fundamental question to social media and online abuse: is it actually possible to completely and properly police an arena where just about anyone, anywhere, can create an account and directly engage with just about anyone they like? 

Swansea City's Jamal Lowe was subjected to racist abuse over Instagram following his side's defeat to Birmingham City Credit: PA Images
  • What impact has the boycott had?

It did not take long for Swansea City’s social media boycott to have an impact. 

For starters, it got people talking. 

Many have applauded the club and their actions have undoubtedly fuelled more conversations around social media and its use - misuse - as an abuse platform. 

Just hours after Swansea took their stance, English club Birmingham City announced they were following suit and staging a social media blackout of their own. 

"The Club stands in solidarity with Swansea City Football Club who first announced their intention to operate a social media blackout earlier today, with this fight going beyond sporting rivalries and one that must be tackled in unison," a statement on Birmingham City’s website said.

That same day, in what now appears to be coordinated action, Rangers Football Club in Glasgow said they would be taking part in a boycott after concerns that "levels of hate are spiralling out of control."

Professor Matthew Williams is an academic at Cardiff University and has studied the nature of hate and discrimination for decades Credit: Professor Matthew Williams

For those who have built careers analysing and seeking to understand the very nature of hate speech and discrimination, the past week feels like a significant moment in the fight against online abuse. 

Professor Matthew Williams is Chair in Criminology at Cardiff University and the director of HateLab, a research institute that uses data science to monitor and combat hate incidents both online and offline. 

He has also written a book, The Science of Hate, which seeks to explore why people commit acts of hate and what can be done to stop it. 

Professor Williams believes Swansea City’s actions could well prove to be a spark that helps ignite a fundamental shift in the battle against online abuse. 

"I think what’s happening with Swansea City is the beginning of a potential movement," Professor Williams said.

"What I can see with Swansea and Rangers and the other clubs that have joined this, is that it’s the beginning of something quite exciting in terms of trying to get that change to happen.

"I’ve been working in this area for 20 years, ten of those years heavily involved in social media, and to date I’ve seen nothing quite as coordinated as this."

Sunil Patel (centre) has said broader societal change has to take place before any lasting impacts are realised on social media Credit: Sunil Patel

Show Racism the Red Card is the UK’s largest anti-racism educational charity. 

Founded in 1996, the organisation uses football as a tool to educate people about racism and discrimination. 

It believes Swansea City's actions are a welcome - and highly effective - addition to a wider strength of feeling. 

"We’re on a wave and a sea change, people have said ‘enough is enough’ and that we need to see a zero tolerance approach to this issue," Sunil Patel, the charity’s senior campaigns manager for Wales said. 

"What it [the boycott] does is it keeps the discussion going.

"It keeps the issue of racism in the limelight, we need to continue to see the momentum carry on."

That importance of momentum was a feeling reflected by Professor Williams. 

He cautioned that, despite this rallying response amongst Swansea City and other football clubs to online abuse, some form of action had to be maintained to translate into lasting results.

"We need to sustain it. This is something that we can’t just do for a month or a week, the kind of boycotts we need to see need to be more permanent until change happens," he said.

"I think pressure only comes about by sustained boycotting and sustained action, then we will see a real change.

"I think this is a bit of a taster of what could come but I think we need more of that will from the club, from the players and from the fans.”

What can be done to fight back against online abuse over platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? Credit: PA Images
  • What can actually be done to fight back?

So what, then, can be done in the fight back against such a persistent, recurring issue that will achieve a lasting and meaningful change in social media culture?

Professor Williams argues there are three main solutions: a more proactive approach from social media firms, a greater political will to change things and a level of micro-activism where individual users of platforms round on and condemn hate speech whenever and wherever it is found.

"Social media companies have to be more proactive in taking down hate speech," Professor Williams said.

"It’s possible to do this but it is a huge technical challenge. That means a lot of investment, a lot of individuals paid to track hate speech and understand how it changes over time. 

"Currently, because hate is profitable, it keeps people attached to social media for longer. 

"The more extreme rhetoric you find online, the more likely someone is to spend online engaging, which means more opportunity to advertise to those people for the social media companies.

"Until we see a reverse of that stickiness of hate and the profitability of hate, it's unlikely we’ll see major changes in the social media companies.

"There needs to be bigger fines for social media that refuse to take down content that we deem illegal in this country. 

"Currently the legislation is pretty toothless when it comes to forcing social media companies to behave in your jurisdiction. So ultimately I think we need the will at the top as well, of government, to put that pressure on.

"Lastly, we need people that watch the game, who use the internet, to stand up against hate. 

Swansea City manager Steve Cooper said the club had "had enough" of its players receiving abuse over social media platforms Credit: PA Images

"We should all become what I call hate incident first responders. So every time we see hateful rhetoric on social media we shouldn’t just tut, roll our eyes and move on. 

"We should actually engage and, with appropriate safeguarding, engage with that hateful speaker and tell them that what they’re saying isn’t appropriate. 

"If we all did that, en masse, the whole crowd, that would change behaviour.

"We've seen it offline. Once the masses express their genuine disapproval of something like hate speech and reinforce it over and over again, we see a reduction in that hate speech.”

For Show Racism the Red Card there has to be broader societal change for any progress to be reflected over social media platforms. 

"I think there are going to be a number of actions that are needed to try to tackle this problem of racism online," Sunil said. 

"I think we have to remember that racism is actually a criminal offence."

Discussing what he felt were inconsistencies in the criminal justice system when punishing those responsible for hate speech, Sunil said, "There needs to be consistency when it comes to punishments and harsher punishments."

"The football authorities need to continue to send out the message that racism is not going to be tolerated in the game of football", he added.

"Charities like ourselves, we need to continue to educate young people, who will be the next generation."    

Facebook EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) headquarters in Dublin Credit: PA Images
  • What do the social media firms say?

In response Facebook, who also owns Instagram, said it was taking proactive steps to snuff out hate speech, in many cases before people had the chance to report it to them. 

A spokesperson said: "We don't want discriminatory abuse on Instagram or Facebook. 

"We share the goal of tackling it and holding people who share it accountable. We do this by taking action on content and accounts that break our rules and cooperating with law enforcement when we receive a valid legal request. 

"Between October and December last year we took action on over 33 million pieces of hate speech content, more than 95% of which we found before anyone reported it to us. 

"We recently announced that we’ll take tougher action when we become aware of people breaking our rules in DMs and we have built tools to help protect people, including the ability to never receive a DM from someone you don't follow. 

"We're committed to our ongoing work with government, industry partners, and other experts to find the right solutions and collectively combat online abuse."

Twitter has been contacted for comment.

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