Tuesday 23 February 2021 10:55 am

Expecting football to make Twitter and Facebook stop social media abuse is like asking your six-year-old to tackle Cristiano Ronaldo

The English football community has finally had enough of the rampant racial abuse and bullying its players suffer on social media. 

Police are investigating and thePremeir League and other bodies have made an unprecedented direct plea to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey.

Of course, these issues on social media don’t just impact football players or high-profile people. We all know and see that abuse – seemingly for any reason – is now endemic on social media. 

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Expecting this pressure from the football community to finally get Big Tech to behave responsibly is about as optimistic as sending your six-year-old to defend against Cristiano Ronaldo. 

While we have seen the usual knee-jerk response – Twitter has removed some individual accounts and Instagram has vowed a clampdown – this does not amount to meaningful, long lasting or effective change. 

Rather it highlights, once again, the belated, reactive response from social media companies trying to put a sticking plaster on problems – almost always following a public outcry – once their standing policy of ignorant bliss becomes untenable in a specific circumstance.

Why the current rules are arbitrary

We’ve seen complaints from advertisers lead to adverts being pulled from appearing next to hateful content. 

Then came hate speech, misuse of personal data (Cambridge Analytica, anyone?), conspiracy theories and fake news. Now complaints are finally turning to the serious issues of racial abuse and cyber bullying. 

All the editorial control exerted by social media companies to date has been achieved largely by technical means and did not require the huge manpower we were told made regulation impossible. 

But a strategy of waiting for organisations with sufficient reason, resources and profile to complain in order to effect change simply isn’t good enough. 

Continuing with this extempore approach means new rules, suspensions and bans only come when we’re at breaking point and after significant damage has already been done. 

Even then such measures are inconsistent across the various platforms, are applied and enforced differently and lack transparency or often any ability to appeal a decision. 

The reality is that under the current regime of no regulation (which social media companies would have us believe is effective self-regulation), each social media company can make up and change whatever rules it wants, whenever it wants and enforce (or not enforce) them as it sees fit. 

So, whether or not hate crimes, racial abuse and cyber bullying are allowed to continue, how long for and against whom is arbitrary and decided by a mere handful of people. 

This is completely unacceptable and is not preventing or resolving these issues.

We need Government to take action

The social media platforms these companies run have become too integral to society to continue to be unregulated – and the widespread abuse and societal ills that flourish there can no longer be ignored. 

It is time for proper Government regulation – like the proposed Online Harms Bill – to provide a consistent and uniform framework across all platforms and make it clear what rights and responsibilities the social media companies and their users have, including to have content removed or challenge the removal of their content or account. 

Only when we have this type of effective and comprehensive regulation will real change occur. 

These companies have demonstrated time and again that they will simply pay lip service to resolving these issues and do as little as possible, as late as possible. They need to be forced to act and to act now.

It’s great that the football community is finally tired of this. Let’s take a stand with them and demand the regulation that will bring about positive change for all of us.

Allan Dunlavy is a partner at law firm Schillings who provides crisis management, strategic reputation and privacy advice to international businesses, individuals and senior management.

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