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UK government promise to hold social media companies ‘more accountable’ for racist abuse on their platforms

We’ll see

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Signal And Telegram Application : Illustration Photo illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images

On Monday, Metropolitan Police arrested a 21-year-old under the Malicious Communications Act, after being brought into their attention by Chelsea and following investigation into “a number of Hate Crime messages” that were posted on social media over a “a number of months” in 2020.

Justice served, one would hope, though this bit of news is tempered by the fact that it’s one person in a sea of racist abuse that still took “a number” of hateful posts and “a number of months” to do so. It’s an uphill battle to fight for the authorities, even in a justice system that classifies hate speech (online or otherwise) as an actual Hate Crime (unlike in, say, the USA).

That battle has not been helped much at all by the social media companies themselves, who largely turn a blind eye to how their platforms are being used. Sure, they’re improving slowly, maybe, but again, those improvements are merely drops in a bucket that is as big as an ocean. Racist dollars are dollars, too, right, [insert name of corporation of your choosing here]?

“To be very honest I don’t know about all these social media things but I think the more people who make accounts, they make money off it. So me personally, I think they don’t really care because as you know, this money has power so the rest doesn’t matter, so it is hard to tell if people will make a change on that.”

-Antonio Rüdiger; source: Chelsea FC

After yet more high profile footballers receiving racist abuse over the weekend, the UK government have promised to act — or at least talk about acting. Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Oliver Dowden has promised to change the laws regarding social media platform accountability, while also calling on those companies to show their “duty of care” in weeding out abuse.

Meanwhile, The FA and FIFPro as well have also released statements on Monday calling for social media companies to get acts together at long last. This isn’t just a one club or a one country or even a one continent problem. It’s a global scourge that we see play out on our computer screens almost every day.

Whether any of these calls will have any substantive effect remains to be seen. They haven’t so far, but hey, maybe this time? Changing the laws might be helpful, but as we saw in the case of yesterday’s arrest, those things take time and may not be enough to stem the tide.

As much as we might like, we can’t arrest all the racists. But we can certainly deny them the popular platforms to spew their abhorrent bile. Music labels didn’t put a stop to illegal MP3 downloads by suing individual Napster users twenty years ago. They (largely) solved that problem by creating their own music stores and streaming services. It took them a while, but we eventually got there.

Online racism isn’t going to be solved by arresting the “anonymous keyboard warriors” either. It’s going to be (possibly, partially) solved by creating services that don’t allow them to fester in the first place. And if Twitter (or Facebook or Instagram or whatever), like Napster, have to go away for that to happen and replaced by something new and good, then all the better!

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