Social Media Silence - Tackling Online Abuse

Author: Adam Heppell

Date: Wednesday 28th April 2021

For the vast majority, social media is fantastic. It is a great way to communicate with friends and family, whether it be through Facebook instant messenger, or indeed joining a new friendship group that shares a common interest. Social media makes the world feel smaller and gives users the chance to follow an idol or their favourite sports team on Twitter and feel more connected. In short, it is meant to bring people together.

Social Media Usage

Hootsuite research found that social media platforms gained 490 million users in 2020 - 13 million users every day, or 15.5 new users every second in 2020. 4.2 billion people use social media around the world. It is estimated that 90% of people with access to the internet use social media.

The impact and reach that social media is clear to see. But Trolls encourage division in society at a time when we should be celebrating what we have in common. Scapegoating any group of people serves no purpose. It just distracts from the real causes of problems in our workplaces and communities

Take a look at Unite’s Unity Over Division campaign here.

Cyberbullying is a common form of online bullying that can take place on social media. Common forms include posting embarrassing photos on social media, sending hurtful messages or threats via messaging platforms, angering and causing distress to those targeted. This can even cause long-term mental health problems.

Football Social Media Blackout

Due to its popularity, sport, more specifically football, is sadly becoming a hotbed of many kinds of online abuse on social media, including racism, sexism and homophobia. So much so that a mass social media blackout is imminent following many players becoming the victims of toxic abuse even from their own ‘fans’ - even if they have won a match or scored a goal.

In response, the English Premier League, English Football League, and Women's Super League clubs will join in a four-day boycott of social media platforms in an effort to combat abuse and discrimination. A Professional Football Association study during the final six weeks of last season identified more than 3,000 explicitly abusive messages aimed at Premier League players, 56% of which were racist. Of the players surveyed, 43% said they had experienced targeted racist abuse.

Many players including former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry have deactivated their social media accounts and have pledged their support to the campaign.  The Football Association will also join the league bodies and other organisations, including the anti-discrimination charity Kick it Out, in supporting the upcoming boycott.   

The boycott will begin at 15:00hrs on 30 April 2021, lasting until 23:59hrs on May Bank Holiday.

What Can Social Media Companies Do?

In response to the pressure exerted by the football community, social media companies have said that routinely blocking discretionary words images and emoji does not allow for context and how a comment may be construed among friends. Long-term freezing and blocking of accounts could be considered. Filtering offensive words has already been introduced by Instagram. Analysis of algorithms could be worthwhile.  

Blocking devices belonging to repeat offenders and preventing them from simply using a different device is a potential solution. IP addresses could be used to root out perpetrators.

It remains fairly straightforward to set up a social media account on most mainstream platforms and remain anonymous. Usually, just an email account and password are needed to register. Individuals can use a fake account to abuse individuals making them difficult to catch. Better measures would help to police the platforms. Additional information such as age verification, or a virtual passport, could also reduce the likelihood of duplicate accounts.

It could help to introduce an Ofcom-style regulator to ensure reports are actioned in 24 hrs and require social networks to report cyber-bullying data with heavy fines for noncompliance.  Indeed, according to the BBC, the government is looking to introduce legislation in this regard with sanctions worth up to 10% of global turnover for social media companies.

Producing clearer guidelines that are universal on how all users should behave online could both educate and filter out individuals who could use the space to abuse others. Detailed, mandatory T&C's for all users based on online protocols that require a demonstration of awareness and an understanding of discrimination may help to address this, too.

Take a look at Unite’s Unity Over Division campaign here.

Unite the Union and the Marx Memorial Library are creating the largest collection of Oral Histories from working people. Sharing stories of struggle, collectivism, and what it means to be a member and activist within the Trade Union Movement.  Listen to the podcasts now on Spotify and Pocket Casts.