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Social networks 'could act tomorrow' against hate speech

March 31, 2021

Wales' Rabbi Matondo is the latest athlete to be subjected to racial hatred online. His reaction, a direct challenge to Instagram, went viral and put the inaction of social media companies back under the spotlight.

Rabbi Matondo enttäuscht
Image: Valeria Witters/Sportphoto/SVEN SIMON/Imago Images

When Welsh footballer Rabbi Matondo opened the Instagram app on his phone after his country's game against Mexico last Saturday, he was met with racist abuse in his inbox.

The words "N****r" and "Negro" were used alongside multiple monkey emojis by a faceless account with 12 followers.

Matondo, who is currently on loan at Stoke from German club Schalke, shared a screenshot of the abuse with a direct challenge to Instagram: "And it continues… another week of @instagram doing absolutely nothing about racial abuse. My insta will get taken down if I post any clips from my games though... #priorities."

His response to the incident went viral. 

Latest example of many

Matondo's Wales teammate Ben Cabango was also racially abused on Saturday but the incidents are by no means isolated. In fact, they're depressingly familiar. Ryan Sessegnon, currently on loan at Hoffenheim, was abused on Instagram last year, while Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies and Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham have also been targeted on the platform. There are countless more examples.

While Facebook, which paid $1 billion for Instagram in 2012, has suspended the account that abused Matondo — and South Wales Police have confirmed that they are investigating the incident — it raises the question of why social networks are not doing all they can to combat hate speech and whether the culprits are being adequately punished.

'Platforms could act tomorrow'

As racial abuse moves from stadiums to the murky and unregulated underworld of social media — particularly as stadiums sit empty during the pandemic — anti-racism organizations such as Kick It Out, which is supported by the Premier League and the English Football Association, are increasingly focusing their efforts on combating online abuse.

"Social media companies could tackle hate speech tomorrow if they wanted to," Troy Townsend, head of development at Kick It Out, told DW. "Freedom of speech doesn't mean that anyone that looks like me should be affected by someone's freedom to talk about me in the way that they do.

"I cannot believe that in 2021 we're still talking about how we do it — how do we make sure that everyone that uses their platforms can do so free from fear?" added Townsend, who has been campaigning with Kick It Out for almost a decade. "The social media companies are the ones who could make a difference tomorrow. That's how quick it can happen. Tomorrow!"

Thierry Henry takes a knee while coach of Montreal Impact
Thierry Henry has quit all social media, critizing their failure to act against strongly against online hate speech. Image: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Social media boycott

The incident comes just days after French legend Thierry Henry announced that he would be quitting social media until the technology companies tackled hate speech with the same ferocity as copyright infringement.

"The sheer volume of racism, bullying and resulting mental torture to individuals is too toxic to ignore," Henry wrote in a statement before pulling the plug on his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. "There HAS to be some accountability. It is far too easy to create an account, use it to bully and harass without consequence and still remain anonymous."

Wales captain Gareth Bale echoed Henry's sentiment, claiming he would be willing to boycott social media as part of a unified effort by footballers to make a statement to the social media companies. Townsend commends the effort but believes it will ultimately be pointless.

"I don't agree because it shouldn't be up to them to take the action. It shouldn't be Gareth (Bale) supporting Rabbi (Matondo)," he said. "It should be the fact that the social media companies have decided to deal with it."

Facebook shirks responsibility

The Welsh FA released a statement after the incident, calling on social media platforms and authorities "to take stronger, more effective and urgent action against this despicable behaviour" – but Facebook's response implied a denial of responsibility.

"We don't want racist abuse on Instagram and have removed the accounts that sent these messages to Ben Cabango and Rabbi Matondo this weekend," said a spokesperson for the tech giant.

The Facebook 'Like' sign at the entrance of its California Headquarters at 1 Hacker Way
Facebook claims racism 'is a bigger problem than us' while doing very little to stamp it out on its platformImage: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

"We have built tools that mean public figures don't ever have to receive DMs (direct messages) from people they don't follow and we recently announced that we'll take tougher action when we become aware of people breaking our rules in DMs.

"We also know these problems are bigger than us, so are working with the industry, government and others to collectively drive societal change through action and education."

While Facebook continues to profit from the higher engagement that comes from hate speech and the sale of users' data to advertisers, the incentive to build algorithms to prevent abuse stands in direct opposition to their interests.

Until Facebook's failures are tackled at the inter-governmental level, Matondo, Cabango, Sessegnon, Bellingham, Davies – and people of color from all walks of life who suffer in silence – will continue to be subjected to relentless hatred on social media.