Racist abuse of footballers will lead to tragedy, Anton Ferdinand tells inquiry

By Sean Ingle
Anton Ferdinand giving evidence to the home affairs committee inquiry into online racist abuse on Wednesday.
Anton Ferdinand giving evidence to the home affairs committee inquiry into online racist abuse on Wednesday. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

The failure of social media companies to tackle racist abuse of footballers will lead to tragedy unless more is done, Anton Ferdinand has warned MPs.

In an attack on platforms such as Instagram and Twitter the former West Ham and England Under-21 defender suggested their refusal to act was linked to senior managers not having experience of racist abuse – and the companies themselves benefiting financially from the “frenzy” occurring when a player was abused.

“What are the social media companies waiting for,” Ferdinand asked the home affairs committee inquiry into online abuse. “Are they waiting for a high-profile footballer to kill themselves, or a member of their family to commit suicide? Is that what they’re waiting for? Do they really want to make a change? So far their words are that they want to but their actions are different.”

The committee’s chair, Yvette Cooper, pointed out several examples of abuse from Euro 2020 on the feeds of players such as Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford – including monkey and gorilla emojis and the “n” word.

Tara Hopkins, director of public policy at Instagram, and Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy and philanthropy at Twitter, insisted their platforms proactively took down 95% of hateful content via machine learning. But after showing them the abusive messages, Cooper told them: “These posts are from five, six, seven weeks ago. If any child following a footballer scrolls through the comments, they will see this abuse. Everything you have said to me seems like utter garbage compared to seeing these posts on the screen right now.”

Hopkins and Minshall pledged to investigate why they had not been taken down. “I am sorry that these posts are still up; they are clearly violating our policies,” Hopkins said.

Earlier Ferdinand said it was not easy for players simply to ignore platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, saying social media was “built to make you addicted to it”. He said: “You can’t put it down once you start scrolling. There is a mental health issue of not being able to escape it.”

He also suggested there was another motive behind the platforms’ inaction. “They don’t want to implement [technology to limit abuse], because, if I retweet a racist tweet that has been put my way, the frenzy around it is monetary to them.”

Ferdinand also told MPs there was a lack of understanding within the platforms’ leadership teams. “How many people at management level in these companies have an experience of being racially abused?” he asked. “You’re a multibillion-dollar company – either have somebody who understands it or people within a senior management level with the understanding that can influence what’s going on in the company.”

Ferdinand’s message was reiterated by former England international Lianne Sanderson, who said companies should start requiring users to provide a government ID to access services. “You can take down profiles but then they can recreate one without even having to go through anything,” she said. “I’m sure the same people that time and time again abuse me, they just recreate the account, because you can tell by the way they’re writing.”

However, both Instagram and Twitter’s spokespeople warned about the complexities of requiring government IDs to access the platforms, with Hopkins highlighting evidence from the Electoral Commission that 3.5 million people in the UK alone do not hold a photo ID.

She also said many younger people did not have such ID: “We want to keep the platform open to all and be as inclusive as we possibly can be.”

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