It all started with silence from a handful of football teams. First Swansea, then Rangers, then Birmingham City coordinated a social media silence to condemn the racist abuse targeted at players. Weeks later the Premier League and its partners coordinated four days of action, delivering the quietest weekend of football in memory. Can football succeed where the world’s biggest brands failed and force change at the tech giants or the people using their services?
In July 2020, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) reported that a third of the top brands would suspend social media ad spend to force action on hate speech. Verizon, The North Face and Ben & Jerry’s were among the prominent names.
However, it inflicted more of a reputational pain than a financial one. Facebook derives three-quarters of revenue from small and medium-sized advertisers, and in Q2 it grew 11%. Meanwhile, in said quarter, Facebook said it took action on 22.5m pieces of hate speech content, more than double the previous quarter.
The brand boycott raised awareness, but months later a sacking of congress was linked to groups on the network. Hate still had a home, and everyone kept posting.
Then the next wave of action (April 30) came from the world of sports. Some of the biggest football clubs in the world announced they’d go silent. If brands couldn’t hurt the pockets of these companies, maybe they could simply stop creating engaging content. If there’s no football content, would football fans stay on social? The Drum explores.
The scale of the problem
Manchester United today released a study into the abuse directed at its players, some of the biggest and most followed in the world.
From September 2019 to February 2021 it checked for abusive words being used against players’ names or account handles, and covered racist, homophobic and abusive comments. It says there was a 350% increase in abuse directed towards the club’s players – some 3,300 posts.
86% were deemed racist and another 8% were homophobic or transphobic, showing the bitter flavor of social media feedback. Banana and gorilla emojis were regularly detected. Abuse peaked in January, with over 400 posts recorded. Notably, United was top of the Premier League for the first time since 2013 then, an admirable feat. It said the abuse only represented 0.01% of conversations that took place on social media about the club and the players.
The Premier League is among the bodies lending weight to the boycott. Some of the biggest brands in football with hundreds of millions of followers spread across social are involved – the silence will be deafening.
Explaining the move, the Premier League said: “We know that a boycott alone will not eradicate this, which is why we will continue to take proactive steps to call for change.” It called for social media companies to continue developing preventative filtering and blocking measures, as it doesn’t want its players seeing the abuse.
It wanted ‘effective verification’ of users to better identify and deliver ‘real-life consequences’ to abusers, including bans, blocks from re-regisration and referral to law enforcement. For the ‘social media passport’, critics are quick to point out that would also have an impact on the most marginalized people in the world speaking out against oppressive regimes, for example.
The league wants warning messages to be displayed if a user writes an abusive message which is already in place on Twitter. But next, it called for a ‘requirement to enter personal data if they wish to send the message’. And finally, it called for ‘dedicated reports’ on how the platforms are planning to ‘eradicate discriminatory abuse’.
It’s worth noting that some of these actions were already taken before the boycott.
As Sam Shave, head of business development at thinkBeyond, wrote in The Drum recently, “commercially social media is one of the most crucial assets to any professional sports team. It’s a platform to engage supporters and activate crucial partnerships for the business.”
When they built these huge online audiences, football clubs became more like media businesses, reliant on more than just matchday broadcast and revenue. For instance, commercial deals have been in place for a few years leveraging the reach on these platforms. So it is unfeasible to go dark for long.
In the long-term, however, the social product could become more appealing to all stakeholders if there wasn’t a report emerging every matchday of a player receiving online abuse.
Sponsors and broadcasters have lent their weight to the drive too.
We believe racist behaviour of any form is unacceptable and therefore, in solidarity with our football partners and the wider football community, our social media platforms will be silent from Friday 30th April 15:00 BST and will return on Tuesday 4th May. pic.twitter.com/aGyEe65zhx
— Cadbury UK (@CadburyUK) April 29, 2021
We stand in solidarity with the football community. More must be done to prevent racist, discriminatory, and threatening abuse online. We have halted paid advertising across our UK social platforms and will redirect the funds to expand our support for the @sldayfdn. https://t.co/dvqFi0ogyk — adidas UK (@adidasUK) April 30, 2021
Sky Sports is supporting the boycott of social media by football and the wider sporting community this weekend.
From 3pm on Friday 30 April to midnight on Monday 3 May, Sky Sports will not post any content to Twitter or any other social media channels.
— Sky Sports (@SkySports) April 29, 2021
We’re supporting our Respect partner The @FA and the wider football community by joining the social media boycott from 3pm today until 11.59pm on Monday 3 May. There is no place for discrimination on or off the pitch and we stand #TogetherAgainstHate. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/wCbmMj1Nfe — Nationwide Building Society (@AskNationwide) April 30, 2021
It’s worth noting that Adidas went above and beyond and said it paused social media spend too. And BT Sport’s thread on the topic is worth checking out.
Everyone at BT Sport stands together united against the rise of online hate and abuse across social media platforms.
We all need to join forces to help create the lasting change we want to see in our online communities.
— BT Sport (@btsport) April 30, 2021
And it spills the bounds of football too now. Numerous other leagues and bodies have jumped on the opportunity.
How important is football to social?
The most comprehensive football census of social media comes from Twitter and Facebook’s reports while they were courting World Cup 2018 advertisers.
In 2018, Twitter said it had 15 million football fans in the UK on the service. Since the current season started in September, it says there have been 11m tweets about football from the UK. It says it removed more than 5,000 of them – 90% were removed ‘proactively’. Its position is that violative Tweets represent approximately 0.05% of the overall football conversation on Twitter. Are there really so few? Do the detection tools, or even the rules, leave a lot of abuse on the table?
Meanwhile, Facebook in 2018 says it had 400 million global football fans, and 140 million football fans on Instagram. That’s more than the population of Brazil and the United States combined. And it’s the game people are most passionate about too. Facebook said: “On Facebook and Instagram, football has three times more followers than any other sport.”
With football’s silence, the platforms theoretically lose engaged minutes from a sizeable slice of its users. Perhaps football will succeed where the brand boycott failed because people actually care about what football has to say.