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Hating Rashford, Sancho and Saka: what can we do about online racism and hate?


By Dr Chris Allen, Associate Professor, School of Criminology

There was a certain inevitability about how the England football team exited the UEFA European Championships. Drawing 1-1 with Italy at full and extra time, England lost on penalties: the players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka either missing or having theirs saved.

There was also a certain inevitability that those three players – each of whom were also black – were immediately targeted for racist abuse on social media. Saka himself has even said he knew instantly that would be the case. In that moment, it is sad that the first thing a player thinks about is racism.

In this article, I dig a little deeper into this to ask why Saka felt like this and what – if anything – my research tells us about online hate.


Racist Hate in Football

Maybe one of the reasons Saka knew instantly was because football players being targeted for racist abuse is not without precedent. In recent years, racism has once begun to rear its ugly head in the English domestic game: that is, if it ever really went away. Among others, this has included a banana being thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during a Premier League match and players threatening to walk off the pitch in protest of racist abuse during a National League match between Dover and Hartlepool. Racism permeates all levels of the English game. So too have black players been increasingly targeted for racist abuse in response to their performance. If they play badly or are on the losing team, this is enough for some to target them for racist hate. So too ex-footballers who now work as pundits on television, among them Ian Wright.

According to Kick it Out, the number of all abusive incidents occurring in English football stadia has increased by 42% in the past year alone. This includes racist abuse but so too homophobic and Islamophobic among others. What is maybe most concerning however is that in this same period, most stadia were closed with matches being played behind closed doors due to COVID. By honing in on racism specifically, the picture looks increasingly bleak. According to Home Office data, the number of racist incidents in football stadia recorded by police increased by more than 50% in that same period of time. In fact, total numbers have doubled in three years.


A Wider Lens

Of course, neither racism nor online hate is the preserve of football. In recent weeks, the tennis player Emma Raducanu became a target for hate on social media after she was forced to retire from her last-16 match at Wimbledon. Widen the lens a little more and the reality is that almost anyone can be targeted for hate via social media. With the Olympic Games in Japan about to begin, there is likely to be some black British athletes like Saka who fear they might be next if they fail to meet their perceived potential.

Since the three England players were targeted there have been some developments. These include a handful of arrests being made and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson having met with social media companies. As regards the former, given social media remains relatively anonymous any arrests are unlikely to be too much of a deterrent. There is also a possibility that those charged will escape conviction. Regarding the latter, while politicians and society alike keep calling on social media companies to do more do either really know what that ‘more’ might look like? I don’t think, they do.

While there is a need to ‘do something’, what we have seen this week are little more than mere knee-jerk reactions. To really begin to engage with racist and other forms of online hate we need a more holistic approach. I have learned this from supporting and feeding into various initiatives over the past few years. These include the Home Affairs Select Committee on Hate Crimes, Law Commission, Birmingham Citizens, Alan Turing Institute and Commission for Countering Extremism among others. All have been investigating similar topics and importantly, what we can do about them.


Tackling Online Hate

If we are to tackle racist and other forms of hate online, my learning has highlighted a number of ‘needs’.

First, we need to stop equating online and offline forms of hate. Online hate is an entirely different beast and while they may be similarly underpinned, they are manifested in very different ways and perpetrated by very different people. Thinking about online and offline as being the same, we fail to recognise the distinctivity and newness of that occurring online.

Second is the need to stop shoehorning online hate into existing policies, guidelines and similar relating to offline hate (crimes). The reason for this is evident in the Government’s Hate Crime Action Plan. Despite stating that online hate has been recorded by all police forces since a mandatory ‘online flag’ was incorporated in existing systems for recording (offline) hate crimes in 2015, the Action Plan openly admits that they still do not know the full scale and prevalence of online hate. While the flag would seemingly have changed little, the real problem is that existing policies and guidelines appropriate to (offline) hate crimes are not fit for purpose for online hate.

Which leads onto the final ‘need’: do we know what constitutes online hate and if appropriate, online hate crime? My view is that we do not. To date, online hate has been understood and duly responded to by the government, police and others as an add-on to offline hate (crimes). This is not the case: online hate is different and distinct, finding form in ways that any offline perceived equivalent does not. It is also driven and catalysed differently to offline forms.


What next?

What is now needed is a root and branch approach to tackling online hate. While there would appear to be little appetite to go back to the drawing board and start all over again, that is what I believe is now needed. We need to define online hate, set the parameters as to what an online hate crime might be and then draw up appropriate ways to tackle it. Seeing it as part of something bigger or trying to find an appropriate add-on has not – and will not – work.

What the recent racist abuse of Rashford, Sancho and Saka shows us is that those behind the hate are currently winning the battle. Before anything can be done, the racists, misogynists, homophobes and their ilk have a step march on the rest of us. We know that, as did Saka. We also know that now is the time to act on that.


July 2021

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