Article by Matt Lawton for the Times - published 9 September 2021
Rio Ferdinand has described the “24-7” impact of online racist abuse, revealing how he had to explain to his children the meaning of deeply offensive emojis that were sent directly to him in social-media posts.
The former England and Manchester United defender, now working as a television pundit, addressed MPs at the draft online safety bill joint committee today, where he spoke of seeing family members “disintegrate” in the face of vile abuse.
Rio’s younger brother, Anton, yesterday told the home affairs committee in parliament that he feared a footballer would take their own life before companies such as Twitter and Instagram properly tackled the problem.
The focus on the issue has intensified since three black England players, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, were abused on social-media platforms after missing their penalties during the shoot-out in the European Championship final against Italy in July. This week, an Instagram spokesman apologised when MPs pointed out that some of the abuse remained on the players’ personal accounts despite being posted weeks ago.
Rio Ferdinand, who was abused in May while working for BT Sport on the game between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United at Molineux, explained how the presence of online platforms means that people are now vulnerable to such attacks at all times.
“At a stadium it can be switched off after 90 minutes,” the 42-year-old said. “But now, with phones, it’s there 24-7. You can’t get away from it. It’s very different. It’s hard to deal with.”
He then spoke of the impact on his children. “I have to sit there and have breakfast with my kids and explain to them what the monkey emoji means in that context, what the banana means. ‘Why is there a banana under your [social-media] post? What’s that about?’
“I am having to do that in this day and age when there’s AI (artificial intelligence) and resources available for these companies to be able to deal with these situations so that I, as a parent, don’t have to go down that road and explain that. You’d like to think that those people would put these things in place.”
Ferdinand also spoke of the wider impact that such attacks can have. “When you sit at home and you look on there and there’s negative discrimination and [it is] prominent for you to see, your self-esteem and your mental health is at risk,” he said. “And again, it’s not just about that person, it’s the wider network of that person and what it does to family and friends.
“I’ve seen members of my family disintegrate at times, I’ve seen other sports stars’ family members taking it worse than the actual person who’s receiving the abuse.”
A consistent criticism levelled at the online platforms is that the responsibility too often falls upon the victim to challenge the abuse, rather than having a system in place that protects people in the first place.
Ferdinand described the lack of a proactive stance from the social-media giants as “an easy cop-out”, adding: “When those three players missed those penalties, the first thing I thought was, ‘Let’s see what happens on social media’. I expected [the abuse] to happen.
“Online you can post a banana [emoji] and be fine. There are no repercussions. How can that be right?”
Edleen John, the FA’s director of international relations, corporate affairs and equality, diversity and inclusion, also gave evidence to parliament today. There were calls this week to make it more difficult for abusers to protect themselves by using anonymous accounts. She suggested a “layered” approach to accessing platforms where people could not, or would not, share identity verification.
“When it comes to verification, social-media companies seem to believe that it’s a binary option, an on-off switch where people have to provide all information or no information,” John said.
“What we believe is that there are multiple layers and multiple mechanisms which could be used in combination that could be used to tackle this issue.
“ID verification is one element, default settings could be another, the limiting of reach could be another.
“The reason we think it has to be a layering is because when we look at the volume of abuse that is received across the world of football, we see that a lot of the abuse is coming from ‘burner’ accounts, where people set up an account, send abusive messages, delete an account and are able to re-register another account within moments.”
Damian Collins MP said that the debate centres around what would be the more “effective enforcement of the Equalities Act online”.
Sanjay Bhandari, the chairman of football’s anti-racism campaign, Kick It Out, urged MPs to take an intelligent, forward-thinking approach to preventing online hate.
“We are dealing with an evolving problem,” he said. “We can’t legislate through a rear-view mirror. We need to look through the windscreen. It might be a monkey emoji now or a banana emoji. If you make that illegal now they will just come up with something else.”