Ferdinand, a former Manchester United player and one of the most recognisable footballers in the world, has expressed his concern that racism is becoming more prevalent in football.
After their Euros penalty miss, Rio Ferdinand claims he “anticipated” racial criticism directed at black England players.
Because of the frequency of racist abuse online, Rio Ferdinand believes football is “going backwards” and racism is being “normalized.”
The former England captain was testifying before a joint parliamentary committee, which was looking for ways to enhance the government’s proposed Online Safety Bill.
Ferdinand, 42, said that after he was attacked on social media, family members “disintegrated.”
“Your mental health and self-esteem are in jeopardy,” Ferdinand warned.
Racism in football has returned to levels seen in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the former Manchester United defender.
After England’s penalty shootout loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final in July, he highlighted vitriol directed towards Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho.
“The first thing I thought when those three guys missed those penalties was, ‘Let’s see what happens on social media,’” Ferdinand remarked.
“I was expecting [the abuse] to occur.”
“I have to explain the monkey emoji to my kids,” Rio Ferdinand says.
On Wednesday, Anton, Ferdinand’s brother, spoke before the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, questioning if it would take a catastrophe for social media firms to take action against online racist harassment.
Representatives from Twitter and Instagram spoke during the hearing, claiming that they were trying to fix the problem.
Katy Minshall, Twitter’s head of UK public policy and philanthropy, said the company was beginning to focus its efforts on making it easier for footballers to be contacted on social media, while Tara Hopkins, Instagram’s director of public policy, said 95 percent of hateful content was removed proactively.
‘I’ve seen members of my family fall apart.’
After a 14-year international career in which he earned 83 caps for England, Rio Ferdinand currently works as a commentator.
Rio Ferdinand told a joint committee of MPs and peers that it was “baffling” that social media firms had capabilities to monitor copyright violations on his YouTube channel, but couldn’t use the same technology to detect racially offensive emojis or words.
“I have watched members of my family disintegrate at times when it occurs,” he said, emphasizing that bad material impacted more than just the individual who received it.
“I’m going to have to get down with my kids and explain what the monkey emoji means in that context,” Ferdinand said.
The fact that offenders were able to stay anonymous online, according to the former Leeds and West Ham player, was “normalizing racist behavior.”
“If you put it in the context of a young kid who supports a particular player at any level,” he added, “he is going through that feed and seeing racist words.”
“That young kid then tells his pals, ‘It’s OK, it’s usual, so I’ll say it in school, so it’s OK.’
“When there are no consequences, when nothing is done to expose that individual for their illiteracy, others will believe it’s normal.”
Ferdinand agreed that social media firms benefited from discrimination and said that putting the burden of reporting abuse or blocking abusers on victims was a “easy cop-out” for platforms.
To validate users, a ‘layered’ method is required.
Ferdinand, together with Edleen John, the Football Association’s director of international connections, corporate affairs, and equality, diversity, and inclusion, and Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari, addressed the committee.
John suggested a “layered” approach to addressing the problem of identity verification for social media users in the proposed law.
“It seems that social media firms think it’s a binary choice where users must either give full information or none,” she added.
Instead, John recommended adopting “several methods” to combat the problem, including identity verification, “default settings,” and restricting the scope of an account.
She thought that by taking this method, she would be able to limit the usage of ‘burner’ accounts, which are used to transmit abusive messages before being swiftly erased, allowing users to create a new account.
In response to her complaints, John claimed she “consistently gets platitudes” from social media companies, citing anecdotal evidence of a player who was banned by a site for reporting harassment too many times.
Bhandari termed the present system “frictionless” and demanded that the draft law be amended to allow the communications regulator Ofcom “authority to establish standards of practice.”
“You must empower Ofcom to police damaging but lawful material,” he added.
Bhandari went on to say that the public reaction to the England trio’s abuse after the Euro 2020 final should serve as a model for future laws.
“The public’s unanimity in condemning it tells us that what the public is asking is that every piece of hatred that was spewed that night be removed off the platforms,” he added.
“One approach to do this is to empower a regulator to reflect current societal practices.
“We’d have to implement checks and balances. We must also strike a balance in dealing with an ever-changing issue. We can’t legislate from behind the wheel; we have to legislate from behind the wheel, looking forward.”
Imran Ahmed, the chief executive and founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), also spoke at the hearing after his organization’s report in July found that Instagram failed to remove 94 percent of accounts that sent racist messages to Rashford, Saka, and Sancho following the Euros final defeat.
“The reason why the abuse counts when it comes to racism against players isn’t because they’re a rich footballer,” Ahmed said.
“Imagine what they’d call me, my mother, or anybody else who belongs to a minority group. It’s as if they’re saying, “These locations aren’t for you.” These are the locations where we hang out.’”
What is the text of the proposed Online Safety Bill?
The committee hearing is one of many stages in the draft bill’s passage into law, which seeks to “create a new legal framework to combat dangerous material online.”
The proposed law imposes additional obligations on social media companies to swiftly delete damaging material or risk multibillion-pound penalties.
Some activists believe the proposals would lead to censorship, while others argue that penalties are insufficient.
The proposed law has been in the works for two years and is aimed specifically at ensuring the safety of youngsters.
It also includes terrorism, misinformation, pornography, grooming, revenge porn, hate speech, pictures of child abuse, and postings about suicide and eating disorders, in addition to racial abuse.
Provisions to combat internet frauds, such as romance fraud and phony financial offers, were added late to the law.