The sleevenotes for The Special A.K.A.’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, detailing the injustices of the imprisonment of ‘Accused No. 1’ and the other Rivonia trialists in apartheid South Africa, motivated this student to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the first activist organisation I ever joined. I kept my membership and, later, happily, once South Africa had changed its policies, was a founding member of ACTSA, the successor organisation to AAM.
The search for racial justice was evidently not confined to South Africa – The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and the riots in various cities which formed its coincidental backdrop had been three years earlier – and neither was South Africa the only country in which apartheid was practised. South Africa left apartheid behind ten years after ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (it too played a role) but apartheid, as a set of principles of the division of people based on their heritage, is still practised in several countries.
Likewise, the search for racial justice is an enduring one. In the sporting world, the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 (not without a backlash, extending also to Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished second and whose story is also interesting) were given fresh impetus by the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to ‘take the knee’ before games is now routinely the case with football players doing so before matches in Europe (though not everywhere, either in the UK or in Europe) in support of Black Lives Matter. There is a concern that this action has come to represent routine tokenism, with little actual achievement of, or advancement in, rights; that people in general – and perhaps even some of those directly involved – no longer understand the whats and whys, or that this is a protest action, and have become impatient with it; and that its commonplace nature has obscured the principles at stake.
Protest needs to continue as long as the injustices which spark it are still in place and, while token gestures are to be avoided, and more and better action certainly needs to result within football to improve the representation of black players, ‘taking the knee’ can still result in some powerful images.
This weekend sees a boycott of social media supported by Kick It Out in protest at the abuse of players on social media and which frequently has a racist angle. It’s fair to say that the action is not everywhere supported, partly for the reasons of tokenism suggested above. Some – including Paul Canoville, an ex-player for Reading FC whose career was ended by a typically brutish Dave Swindlehurst ‘challenge’ after fewer than twenty, dazzling, games (I saw him play) and who, as Chelsea’s first black player in 1982, after the riots and before The Special A.K.A., directly experienced the hatred of 1980s terraces racism – have urged players instead to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism.
It is of course possible both to join a short-term social media blackout and to speak out directly. While football has, at least in this country, made significant strides since the 1980s both on and off the terraces it is not doing enough to address the lack of opportunities for black players after their playing careers are over; while the turn to the far-right in the public discourse is likely to be followed on the terraces too (and, perhaps, not only at Millwall whose fans booed their players taking their knee in the home game v Derby, to the club’s ‘sadness’ and ‘dismay’ although the players stopped doing so a few games later). After all people – at matches in the UK; eastern Europe having its own problems in this regard – no longer throwing bananas at black players, or making monkey noises, represents only a limited degree of progress; and, as we have learned, hard-won progress is easily lost when it is taken for granted. Once fans are back in the grounds, there is a role here for fan-led action and, after the demonstrations of fan power which led to the ending of talk of the ‘European Super League’, that clearly encompasses the potential for boycotts, too.
In such times, statements are required and I’ll be joining the social media boycott from 3pm this afternoon, logging out and closing Twitter (I’m not part of Zuck’s money-making machine), in direct solidarity with Liam Moore, captain of Reading FC and the subject of a terrible social media post which led to him closing his Twitter account earlier this month.
It is impossible for social media companies to moderate every post and poll in advance, but it is also clear that ‘the community’ can only police the actions of the idiots so far – and even then only retrospectively, i.e. once the damage is done. It is also clear that social media organisations can do much more to wipe out the abuse. Their algorithms can block posts – as we know – on the basis of certain keywords, when they choose to do so; and they can do more to ascertain the identities of account holders such that subsequent action against those who abuse the platforms isn’t subject to guesswork and sleuthing. This is not an argument for ending public anonymity where people want, or need, it – but the social media organisations need to be able immediately to identify precisely who is responsible for a particular post where criminality is involved. Ascertaining identities as part of the process of setting up an account would stop people whose accounts have been blocked from simply opening another under a different name – multiple accounts are also a problem in themselves – and they would also stop the troll farms (ditto); while ending the current ease with which social media accounts can be set up would also, to some extent, be self-policing as regards how people conduct themselves online.
All of this, of course, might be thought to reduce accounts and traffic, and thus revenues – which might well account in some way for the tardiness of the social media organisations to do what is already within their powers. But a line has to be drawn and the vileness of much of our public discourse needs to be positively addressed. If not, the toxicity of much online behaviour is likely to lead to more people simply closing their accounts and walking away and that, in turn, will leave the social media organisations more in the hands of the serial abusers and, therefore, somewhat less attractive to advertisers and other funders. It is, therefore, ultimately in the interests of such organisations to end the abuse.
My hope is that the anticipated decline in collective social media traffic over this holiday weekend will do its bit to persuade the social media organisations to play their part better. To co-opt a phrase – when the fun stops: stop.
[EDIT: before I logged off, I noticed that the Football Supporters Association, which is also joining the boycott, had published a six-point programme for change regarding how social media companies could do more to stop online abuse. It’s pretty much in line with the above, being based on:
- applying filters and blocking measures
- better accountability for safety, including effective verification
- ensure real-life consequences for perpetrators
- a warning message to be displayed when an account holder writes an abusive message
- robust, reliable and quick measures where abuse is posted
- transparent quarterly reports to be published on work done to eradicate abuse.
In general, this is a worthwhile plan for action which social media companies need to take seriously.]