Nick Vaughan is a director at communications agency, ENGINE MHP. He previously headed up Public Affairs at the Football Assocation, and was a Special Advisor at 10 Downing Street.
I avoided Twitter the morning after England’s loss to Italy at Wembley. The result was disappointing enough: the social media bubble of vitriol would just make it worse.
I don’t believe Twitter viciousness or vile racism represent the vast majority of football fans – it has certainly been a poor predictor of election and referendum results. But small numbers of people can do big damage. I could avoid the vitriol because it was not directed at my personal feed.
The England players who missed their penalties could not avoid it as easily. They have served our country with distinction and deserve more than to open their social media to a torrent of racial abuse.
Twitter announced that it had removed a thousand tweets in the 24 hours following Sunday’s match. And we also understand there have been some two thousand tweets specifically targeted at England players with racist abuse since the start of the tournament. This was not about Sunday’s result: it is a long standing campaign of abuse.
Technology is helping with the social media clean up. Twitter’s spokesman said: “Though a combination of machine learning-based automation and human review we have swiftly removed over 1000 tweets and permanently suspended a number of accounts for violating our rules, the vast majority of which we detected ourselves proactively using technology”.
However, Government action is also needed. The Football Assocation, PFA, English Football League and others are absolutely right to re-issue calls for this vile racism to stop. The Government must step up and act now, and prioritise this over and above any World Cup bid. The violence at Wembley and the gutter online racist abuse of carnage aren’t helping our efforts to persuade FIFA we should host a World Cup in 2030. It is also the right thing to do.
The Government must therefore act now. There are two things they need to address: the racist abuse online and the physical violence which marred the match itself.
On the racial abuse online, the Government must firstly proceed with the Online Harms Bill, and ensure that it sees pre-legislative scrutiny as soon as possible in the autumn. And it must be given priority passage through both Houses so it reaches the statute book as soon as possible.
While heavily focused on protecting children and tackling terrorism, the Bill refers, albeit ambiguously, about the need to tackle content that is “harmful to adults”. We need to remove this ambiguity and make it clear what is acceptable – what is not – and what the punishment is. The focus should be on clear harm while allowing statements that are distasteful but not racist.
We simply cannot let a minority of idiots and racist, twitter-trolls ruin the pleasure of our national and international game for the rest. And we shouldn’t forget the pleasure this fine, young England team has given us after a long, dark lockdown.
On the physical violence at Wembley, Government action is also required.
Very few of the thugs who wreaked havoc over the weekend will be otherwise respectable, law-abiding citizens. The Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto promised tougher sentencing for serious criminals. Locking up violent criminals for longer will be good for the country – and for football.
Government must also work with The FA and Met Police now and use all its available tools to locate the criminals who were in and around the vicinity of the stadium – and elsewhere. Then they must be punished. The Football Spectators Act 1989 clearly says that all the behaviours we witnessed on Sunday are criminal offences and football offences as those that occur “within 24 hours on either end of a football match can also be designated as a football-related offence”.
Notwithstanding recent events, domestic football has made huge positive strides in recent decades on football related crime. Indeed, football related crime has actually decreased by 65 per cent in the past decade and football banning orders have also halved during this same period. Another cause for optimism is the responses by people and communities to the racist abuse.
An example is the mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester, this was defaced with racist abuse. The abuse took the headlines but since there have been large numbers of local people drawing hearts and writing messages of support on to the mural. So there is hope.
Despite what some on the left want us to believe, the UK is an overwhelmingly racially tolerant and decent place. The vast majority of us are law-abiding and decent.
We loathe the violent criminals who wrecked Leicester Square on Sunday night. The thugs and the racists have spoken. Now, the voice of the law abiding majority needs to be heard loud and clear: we won’t tolerate this.