What happens to fans who abuse footballers on social media?

Marcus Rashford Man Utd 2020-21
Getty/Goal
Racial abuse on the likes of Twitter and Instagram has become increasingly and dangerously common - so how are these users punished?

Racism in football has been a steadily growing problem over the years.

The combined presence of Twitter and Instagram and the fact that fans are not allowed to enter stadiums due to the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the problem, with many instead taking to the social media platforms to hurl abuse at footballers - often hiding behind an anonymous profile.

The likes of Marcus Rashford, Eddie Nketiah and Axel Tuanzebe have been repeatedly targeted with racist bigotry on the platform - so how are they getting punished? Goal takes a look.

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Arrest

Those identified to be spewing racist abuse online can face arrest.

When West Brom midfielder Romaine Sawyers was sent a racist message after their loss to Manchester City, the man - a 49-year-old, from Kingswinford near Dudley - was arrested by West Midlands Police in January 2021.

Teenager Patrick O'Brien was found to have racially abused former Arsenal player Ian Wright through direct messages on Instagram after losing a FIFA game on PlayStation, his messages deemed "grossly offensive, obscene and menacing" as he blamed the ex-striker for his loss.

O'Brien, however, escaped a criminal conviction despite pleading guilty in court after the incident was investigated by police. Judge David Waters stated he “didn’t see anything to be gained” by imposing a criminal conviction. He instead handed O’Brien probation.

Wright spoke of his disappointment following the verdict, writing on social media: “I’ve seen today’s judgement and I’m disappointed. This case was never about revenge, it was always about consequences for acts of racism. My forgiveness of this young man was for my own deeply personal need and desire to move forward without further anguish. I’m a 57 year old man that has experienced racism throughout my life. I wasn’t expecting my forgiveness to be an invitation to lighten a sentence.

“Seeing this judgment I can only wonder what deterrent there is for anyone else who spouts this kind of vile racist abuse.

“An individual wished death upon me because of my skin colour. No judge’s claims of ‘naivety’ or ‘immaturity’ will ever be acceptable to us. The supposed immaturity and naivety of our attackers is never any comfort.

“So yeah I am disappointed. I’m tired. We are all tired.”

Stadium bans

Stadium bans are handed to those found to be instigating racial hatred at matches, and the same can apply when you're found to be doing the same on social media,

Chelsea forbade three of their supporters from entering the stadium during a 2019 Europa League quater-final game against Slavia Prague after a video circulated on social media of the club's fans singing an offensive, Islamophobic song about Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah.

The club statement read: "Chelsea FC finds all forms of discriminatory behaviour abhorrent and where there is clear evidence of Chelsea season ticket holders or members involved in such behaviour, we will take the strongest possible action against them.

"Such individuals are an embarrassment to the vast majority of Chelsea supporters who won’t tolerate them in their club."

The Metropolitan Police also said it would seek to apply for civil football banning orders.

Social media bans

Both Twitter and Instagram have announced more punitive measures to users who are found to be spreading racial abuse on their platforms.

Twitter has permanently suspended an account that was used to racially abuse Arsenal forward Nketiah - with the user taking to Twitter to tell the striker to leave the Gunners.

A spokesperson for Twitter told Sky Sports News: "Racist behaviour has no place on our service and when we identify accounts that violate any of the Twitter Rules, we take enforcement action. The account referenced has been permanently suspended."

Instagram have also pledged to be more proactive with banning users and suspending accounts on their platform, stating: "Our rules against hate speech don't tolerate attacks on people based on their protected characteristics, including race or religion.

"We strengthened these rules last year, banning more implicit forms of hate speech, like content depicting Blackface and common antisemitic tropes. We take action whenever we become aware of hate speech, and we're continuously improving our detection tools so we can find it faster.

"Between July and September of last year, we took action on 6.5m pieces of hate speech on Instagram, including in DMs, 95 per cent of which we found before anyone reported it."

Twitter, however, have stated that they do not plan on removing anonymity from their website, despite a large number of racist messages coming from secondhand accounts that do not involve the person's real name or contact information.

"Pseudonymity has been a vital tool for speaking out in oppressive regimes, it is no less critical in democratic societies," they said. "Pseudonymity may be used to explore your identity, to find support as victims of crimes, or to highlight issues faced by vulnerable communities."

Anonymity on the internet is needed, as they state, for those in vulnerable positions who would be put in danger if they were to use their real name online.

The removal of anonymity would not discourage racial or discriminatory hatred. Facebook requires users to provide their ID on sign up, and the website is a cesspool of bigoted language and harmful conspiracy theories - some are not deterred by being associated with racist rhetoric.

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