What Is the Best Way to Stop Abusive Language Online?


Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

How often do you encounter racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory language online in posts or comments? Do you think abusive language is a serious problem that social media companies, like Twitter and Facebook, should do a better job of addressing? What consequences should there be for users who post these kinds of comments?

If you were in charge of a social media company, what actions, if any, would you take to stop such abuse?

In “English Soccer Will Boycott Social Media to Protest Online Abuse,” Jesus Jiménez and Andrew Das write about English soccer officials’ announcement that they would conduct a social media blackout to pressure platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to do more to combat abuse among their users:

Cases of harassment have been well documented online. In February, Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah posted a picture on Twitter with the caption “Working with a smile!”

The tweet was met with racist abuse from a Twitter user who told Nketiah, who is Black, to leave the club. Twitter responded by permanently suspending the user’s account, Sky Sports reported.

Such harassment has been instigated not only by fans, but also by club social media accounts. In December, the commentator and former soccer player Karen Carney deleted her Twitter account after she received a wave of online abuse.

After a 5-0 win by Leeds United over West Brom, Carney on Amazon Prime Video Sport wondered whether Leeds would “blow up at the end of the season.” A clip of her commentary was shared by the Leeds team Twitter account, which invited a slew of hateful messages toward Carney.

Many on Twitter defended her and criticized the team’s social media folks, including the former Leeds captain Rio Ferdinand, who called for the tweet to be deleted.

Bethany England, a forward for Chelsea, called out Leeds’ social media team for “atrocious behaviour.”

“Cyber bullying a female pundit and opening her up to mass online abuse for DOING HER JOB AND HAVING HER OPINION!” England said.

In February, the top executives of the Football Association — English soccer’s governing body — the Premier League, and other organizations wrote an open letter to Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, and Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, calling for the leaders to put an end to “the levels of vicious, offensive abuse” coming from users on their platforms.

“The reality is your platforms remain havens for abuse,” the soccer executives wrote. “Your inaction has created the belief in the minds of the anonymous perpetrators that they are beyond reach.”

In the past, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have taken steps, such as banning users temporarily or permanently, but the issues of online abuse have persisted.

In a news release announcing the social media boycott, which will take place from Friday afternoon through Monday, English soccer called on the United Kingdom to “bring in strong legislation to make social media companies more accountable for what happens on their platforms.”

In the statement, Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, said the league would continue to push social media companies to make changes to prevent online abuse.

“Racist behaviour of any form is unacceptable and the appalling abuse we are seeing players receive on social media platforms cannot be allowed to continue,” Masters said. “Football is a diverse sport, which brings together communities and cultures from all backgrounds and this diversity makes the competition stronger.”

The article concludes:

The social-media blackout will take place while an entire slate of games in multiple leagues will be played, including one between Manchester United and Liverpool, the Premier League’s defending champion.

Edleen John, director of international relations for the Football Association, said English soccer will not stop pressing for change after next weekend.

“It’s simply unacceptable that people across English football and society more broadly continue to be subjected to discriminatory abuse online on a daily basis, with no real-world consequences for perpetrators,” John said. “Social media companies need to be held accountable if they continue to fall short of their moral and social responsibilities to address this endemic problem.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you think English soccer’s blackout will bring about change in social media companies’ policies regarding discriminatory abuse on their platforms? Why or why not?

  • What about users themselves? To what degree do you think the blackout will make them reconsider their behavior online? Why do you say that?

  • How and where do you draw the line between comments that are acceptable, though perhaps inappropriate, and those that should lead to repercussions like having one’s account deleted?

  • Have you ever reported another social media user for abusive language online? If so, what happened?

  • Do you think that public figures like professional athletes and pundits, along with celebrities and influencers, endure more abuse online than people who aren’t famous? Is it just “part of the job”? Should it be?

  • The article points out that Leeds United’s team Twitter account shared a clip including speculation by the soccer commentator Karen Carney that the team might not do well at the end of the season, which in turn “invited a slew of hateful messages toward Carney” from Leeds fans. What are your thoughts about this incident? Did members of Leeds United’s social media team act irresponsibly, were they just trying to engage fans or is there some other reason they posted the video? Explain.

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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