English soccer at breaking point over abuse on social media

Death threats. Racist abuse. Sexist slurs. And social media accounts allowed to stay active even after spreading bile.

English football has reached breaking point with players, coaches, referees and officials aghast at the ongoing proliferation of hate aimed at them on Instagram and Twitter.

A week that began with the Premier League's most high profile referee reporting threats of physical harm to police and more Black players targeted by racist users, drew a pledge by Instagram to clamp down on hate but undercut by leniency shown toward abusers.

It's why English football leaders have taken their concerns to the top of the social media giants, uniting for an unprecedented joint letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter counterpart Jack Dorsey that demands the platforms stop being "havens for abuse" by taking tougher action to eradicate the viciousness.

"Your inaction has created the belief in the minds of the anonymous perpetrators that they are beyond reach," read the letter whose signatories included officials from the English Football Association, the Premier League, Women's Super League and the organizations representing players, managers and referees.

One of world football's leading anti-discrimination officials believes it could be time to log off until meaningful action is taken.

"What they probably need to do now is to have their own boycott," said Piara Powar, executive director of the FARE network. "Can you imagine if Premier League clubs, even symbolically for one day this year called for a boycott of social media use by their fans, didn’t post anything for a day, and then kept doing that until the platforms showed some serious intent?

"Because there’s no question, although the issues in football are probably a scratch on the back of what Facebook is facing globally, if the level of engagement that football brings ... they just wouldn’t want to lose that."

But the platforms that allow clubs and players to engage with fans — and monetize sponsorships — can also be used as a force for good.

Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford showed just that by using Twitter in particular in the last year to campaign against child poverty. He utilized his ever-growing following of more than four million to pressure the government into providing free school meals during the pandemic.

"It wasn’t here 10-15 years ago and we’re privileged to have it, to connect with people all over the world with different cultures and religions," Rashford told broadcaster Sky Sports. "To see people use it in a negative way is stupid. Hopefully they can sort out that."

Rashford knows how disturbing the platforms can be as he was targeted with racist messages along with United teammates Axel Tuanzebe and Anthony Martial after a defeat to Sheffield United last month.

Rashford wants racist users "deleted straight away." Facebook, which owns Instagram, this week pledged to disable accounts that send abusive direct messages as part of a push to show it would act on racism. But it became clearer when pressed on the policy that only a repeated number of unspecified racist messages would see a user banned.

"That isn’t really a position that’s acceptable to many people," Powar said.

Instagram's lack of a zero tolerance approach meant the account that racially abused Swansea player Yan Dhanda after an FA Cup loss to Manchester City on Wednesday will remain active, with only some messaging functions disabled for an unspecified period of time.

"We think it’s important people have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes," said a statement from Facebook owner Instagram. "If they continue to break our rules this account will be removed."

That does not go far enough for Swansea, which said it was "shocked and surprised by the leniency shown" over such toxic conduct.

"It is appalling that Facebook cannot empathize more with the victim of such offensive messages," the south Wales club said in a statement on Saturday.

The police appear more determined to intervene and prosecute offenders who have used social media to hurl hatred. The government is also introducing legislation — the online safety bill — that could see social media companies fined for failing to protect their users.

The letter from the English football authorities to Dorsey and Zuckerberg asked for an improved verification process that ensures users provide accurate identification information and are barred from registering with a new account if banned. The need to submit identification documentation has been cautioned against by those highlighting how anonymity on the platforms can assist engagement by victims of domestic abuse, whistleblowers and those trying to communicate from danger zones.

Social media can still do more to detect abuse on their services.

"The failure to take down and challenge the worst type sort of racism, sexism we’ve seen has really left them untouched," said Powar, whose FARE network investigates discrimination in football for governing bodies. "They just don’t seem to see it as a priority because there’s no question that they have the technical capability."

Even staying off the sites yourself isn't enough to escape being targeted with threats of violence, as managers and referees have discovered.

Referee Mike Dean contacted the police after receiving death threats through family accounts after sending players off in matches last week.

"Online abuse is unacceptable in any walk of life," said Mike Riley, a former Premier League referee who is general manager of England’s refereeing body, "and more needs to be done to tackle the problem."

Newcastle manager Steve Bruce has been alarmed by the menacing messages aimed at him via the account of son Alex, a former Hull and Ipswich defender.

"It’s really horrible stuff," Bruce said. "Things like someone saying they hope I die of COVID."

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta still has accounts but doesn't log in himself anymore because of the vitriol.

"I prefer not to read because it would affect me personally much more the moment somebody wants to touch my family," Arteta said. "The club was aware of it and we tried to do something about it and ... can we do something about it? That’s what I am pushing for."

It's why players still take a knee before kickoff, as they have done since June as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

"This is us taking a stand against racism," said Aston Villa defender Neil Taylor, who is trying to encourage more fellow British Asians into the sport. "I don’t think we’ll ever fully eradicate it, but we’re now trying to create a society which calls people out on it."