Rio Ferdinand: Social media platforms are 'normalising' racist behaviour

The former Manchester United defender said it was 'baffling' social media companies are not proactive on discrimination

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Former England captain and Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand has shared his experiences of online abuse.

The 42-year-old was giving evidence at a parliamentary committee as the government looks to draft a bill to tackle social media abuse in football.

This comes nearly two months after several England stars were racially abused on social media following the national side’s loss on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

Ferdinand has repeatedly called on social media companies to "come together" to "protect people on your platforms".

The TV pundit, while speaking to parliament earlier addressed how he believes social media platforms are "normalising" racist behaviour and language directed at players of different races, adding that there are "no repercussions" for racists online.

Rio Ferdinand giving evidence to joint committee seeking views on how to improve the draft Online Safety Bill designed to tackle social media abuse.
Rio Ferdinand giving evidence to joint committee seeking views on how to improve the draft Online Safety Bill designed to tackle social media abuse.

The ex-Manchester United player also told MPs and peers that online racism continues to thrive because people are allowed "hide behind the curtain" of anonymity that social media provides.

England’s Missed Penalties

The former England international said there was a “disheartening” inevitability about the abuse directed at England trio Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho after the penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy in the final of Euro 2020 at Wembley in July.

He said: “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.”

He described that after the Euro 2020 final "social media platforms became the toxic and racist safe place for the ignorant and cowardly rats to start spouting their disgusting feelings".

England's Bukayo Saka has his shot saved in the penalty shoot-out during the UEFA Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium, London.
England's Bukayo Saka has his shot saved in the penalty shoot-out during the UEFA Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium, London.

He added that the effects of racist abuse do not affect the mental health of players alone, but also their families face as well, as he has had to teach his own children "what the monkey emoji means".

Ferdinand is one of six witnesses who answered questions to the joint committee who are working on the UK Government's draft online safety bill.

Others due to testify include Imran Ahmed, from Centre for Countering Digital Hate, Eldeen John from the FA, Sanjay Bhandari, chair of Kick It Out, Danny Stone MBE, the Director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust, Nancy Kelley, the CEO of Stonewall and Danny Stone MBE.

While inquiries continue, a Cheshire man has been sentenced for posting racist abuse about England players on the night of the Euro finals in July.

Edleen John, the Football Association’s director of international relations, corporate affairs and equality, diversity and inclusion, 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.”

His brother Anton had told the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday that in his view the social media companies would not act on online abuse until a footballer or celebrity took their own life, by which time it would be too late.

Ferdinand spoke openly about how the abuse can impact individuals and their families.

“When you sit at home and you look on there and there’s negative discrimination and prominent for you to see, 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.”

Ferdinand felt too much of the onus to block abusers lay with the victim.

“I think that’s an easy cop-out for the social media platforms when they put forward ideas like that,” he said.

Ferdinand felt it was “baffling” that social media companies could act so quickly on issues around copyright but could not be so proactive on discrimination.

John described the regulatory systems put in place by the social media companies themselves akin to “putting a band-aid over a bullet wound”.

Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari told the committee there was a clear disconnection between the social media companies’ European management and their American headquarters.

“My experience is we will have conversations in London, and it will be London says ‘oh, that’s interesting, maybe’ and then California says ‘no’,” he said.

“I’m not sure if I’m stuck in Groundhog Day or Dante’s Inferno. Either way, it’s a deeply unpleasant experience.”

Bhandari said access to platforms was currently too frictionless and added: “It’s too easy for someone to just turn up and abuse someone.

“We have to remember that the online world of abuse is not someone standing on Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park and shouting abuse into the ether.

“This is 150 people in a Twitter pitchfork mob turning up in your living room and spitting abuse in your eyes, whilst your family are next door, unable to do anything about it. That’s the problem that we’re dealing with and that’s the problem we need to address.”

Bhandari said legislation would need to anticipate new methods of abuse.

“We are not legislating for the world as it is now, we also have to legislate for the world as it is going to be and we can’t anticipate all of those changes,” he said.

“So the best thing to do is to give Ofcom the power to do that.”

Imran Ahmed, the chief executive from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said social media giants had proved “incapable of regulating themselves” and that at every turn they “put profit before people.”