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By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

May 12, 2021 | 7 min read

While football organizations went silent on social media last month, UK telecoms giant BT launched a bold anti-hate speech campaign to spark debate. BT Sport’s head of marketing Ed Cracknell and Wunderman Thompson managing partner Andy Lane talk to The Drum on how the campaign was painstakingly brought to life.

BT and its agency partner Wunderman Thomson, with Pitch Marketing Group and anti-online abuse charity Glitch, used BT Sport as the lens to look at the abuse its pundits, staff and the football community receive on social media. But it couldn’t just be another sad video campaign – ‘Draw the Line’ needed to inspire action.

Lane says: “We wanted to have a genuine point of view on the topic, we didn’t just want to put together a creative campaign. We wanted to be credible in the space because it is a really thorny issue. We wanted to help BT talk about it in a very critical way.”

Football icons including Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Savage and Karen Carney took the spotlight in the hero film (above) to unveil the harrowing experiences they’ve had. For many, hearing their accounts of the awful messages they see every time they open their devices could force a rethink of online behavior. From a creative perspective, they were shot against a black backdrop in a BT Sport broadcast style. The easy and on-brand execution betrays a campaign that was “really intense” to bring together, according to Lane. A lot of work went under the hood to ensure the push had a solid footing and purpose.

BT Sport

Cracknell says: “The campaign was in the pipeline for a while. The more we got into the subject, and how much was written about the abuse, the more we realized there was an unknown scale to the problem. Every time we thought we cracked it we had to revisit it.”

The team stepped back and decided to find “the right partner” (Glitch) and commission some research that would add some substance to the complaints. They wanted to change minds, rather than just highlight a vague issue.

Cracknell says: “The fact that it coincided with the social media boycott was purely coincidental because this has been something we’ve been working on for a while. We were actually able to magnify a topic that was at the heart of everyone.”

This was aided by a bedrock of research from YouGov, which found that five million Brits received online abuse in the last year. Lane describes online abuse like an iceberg, as much of the worst stuff appears in direct messages.

However, working with Glitch, BT Sport developed an AI Abuse tracker tool to track the level of abuse on Twitter during a football match. This could at least quantify the in-breach posts shared in public spaces. It unearthed some interesting findings: during high-profile football matches, three in 10 abusive tweets were sent before a ball was even kicked; abuse surged in frustration during games where teams failed to score; and across all the matches tracked, BT observed a 65% increase in religious abuse and a 45% increase in sexual orientation abuse.

Lane says: “We couldn’t just go and read everyone’s private messages so we put together a national representative survey and basically asked people about the abuse. We fused that together with what happens during the 90 minutes of a football match. This problem isn’t just about the matchday.”

Half of the population has seen online abuse in the past year, and one in five women surveyed said they’ve received online abuse specifically about their appearance. The first stage of this campaign shared these findings during prime-time on the channel, taking over ad breaks and digging into each stat during the late stages of the Champions League and Europa League, as well as during big boxing, UFC and rugby events.

Lane says: “[The research] was a really important part of everything we did creatively, it validated the campaign and also the BT team came away and wanted to understand it.”

As well as the awareness-raising piece, the issue will continue to be highlighted across BT Sport channels for the remainder of the season – but more substantively, it has implemented an anti-online abuse policy that will see BT proactively responding to, deleting, blocking and reporting hate and abuse in its social space. BT Sport pundits will breathe a sigh of relief that the broadcaster is taking a harder stance on abusers, but the campaign is also looking to clean up the discourse online – especially with BT a significant stakeholder in internet infrastructure and comms.

Lane adds: “We wanted to create a movement ... and give people a real call to action.”

Cracknell and Lane both on the Zoom call recall “many late nights” on WhatsApp trying to work out the minutia and tone of the campaign. The desire to “break the cycle” of online abuse got them through it. And, for a short time at least, they can take a quick break from each other.

While BT’s talent provides a focal point for the issue, they’re careful not to make it all about them. Cracknell says: “We wanted to pair up these stories with our teams and take some really powerful steps. But it is important to remember this doesn’t just happen to people in the public eye. It’s not just celebrities, politicians or our talent, it’s actually everyday people, and you know more than one in 10 have been victims of online abuse in the past 12 months.”

So accompanying the stories are tech tips from Seyi Akiwowo, founder and executive director of Glitch, who talks about being a good digital citizen. Cracknell says: “We say here’s the problem, and here’s the solution.”

The team is measuring the campaign in all the standard ways. It is still a marketing drive in many respects. But they’ll also continue to measure the levels of hate and hopefully chart some progress. And their new policy to condemn hate gives the organization a stronger standing. But how will people react? Hate, sexism and racism prove to be divisive topics that can inflame. That noise aside, there’s been some early anecdotal indicators that people are adapting their behavior. Cracknell says he’s uplifted by some of the messages sent to Robbie Savage and Austin Healey already. “I hope we’ve made a difference.”

But if people don’t change their game, they’ll face tougher action. In the two weeks from the campaign’s launch to the interview, BT had made 104 reports to platforms. 90% was targeted hate sent either directly to its team or its channels, 5% was sexist and 5% was racist.

The Drum explored the Future of TV last month. Don’t forget to sign up for our Future of Media briefing here.

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