“It was an honour to be part of an @England squad that leads by example, they are brothers for life and I’m grateful for everything that I have learnt from every one of the players and staff who worked so hard,” wrote Bukayo Saka, the 19-year-old England football player, in the wake of the European Football Championship finals last week. The professional footballer wrote of the devastating loss, in a nuanced and emotional Instagram post, later touching upon how he and fellow players faced widespread discrimination and verbal abuse across social media.
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Saka, all Black players, were amongst the five called upon to take a penalty following extra time. After each missed, and England lost, the players were subjected to a tirade of racist abuse.
“To the social media platforms @instagram @twitter @facebook I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me Marcus and Jadon have received this week,” Saka wrote in his statement. “I knew instantly the kind of hate that I was about to receive and that is a sad reality that your powerful platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.
The footballers took a graceful and powerful stance after a heartbreaking loss. Rashford and Sancho also posted reflective statements on the app, expressing the pain associated with the loss of the match, their love for their teammates, and acknowledging the language used against them. “I’m not going [to] pretend that I didn’t see the racial abuse that me and my brothers Marcus and Bukayo received after the game, but sadly it's nothing new. As a society we need to do better, and hold these people accountable,” wrote Sancho. “Hate will never win.”
People were posting monkey emojis in the comments underneath the players’ Instagram posts and using discriminatory language to attack the aforementioned players. Now, platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are being called upon to put an end to hateful language and take strict action. Much of England, football fans or not, were infuriated by the blame and defamation passed onto the players. Strict regulations are being demanded in order to combat hate speech. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has vowed to rectify the situation. According to the BBC, the app has admitted its mistake in the matter. The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, told the BBC, “We have technology to try and prioritise reports and we were mistakenly marking some of these as benign comments, which they are absolutely not. The issue has since been addressed. Reports on these types of comments should [now] be reviewed properly.”
The condemnation of social media giants began shortly after the match. Criticism towards Instagram was sparked when reporting the monkey emoji comments resulted in the app saying that such comments likely don’t go against their community guidelines.
“It is absolutely not OK to send racist emojis, or any kind of hate speech, on Instagram,” Mosseri said in a Twitter thread. “To imply otherwise is to be deliberately misleading and sensational.” He also said it's more difficult to regulate such comments that are purely written with emojis. Organisations and regulators are appalled that such abuse can make its way through Instagram’s filters, implying that there is far more work to be done. Facebook and Twitter, too, have had several controversies when it comes to the guidelines surrounding hate speech.
“Of the 105 accounts we identified as having racially abused England footballers, 88 are still up,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Hate. "From its failure to identify monkey emojis as racist, to its flat-out refusal to issue lifetime bans to racists, Instagram – and its parent company Facebook – have failed to act.”
The very fact that Saka foresaw the abuse he was about to face is telling, of not only the continuous racism within the country, but also of the ongoing issue of racism and abuse within football.
The players have seen a flood of support and solidarity following the toxicity they received. Saka has tripled his number of followers on Instagram, and thousands of social media users have sent uplifting messages. A Manchester mural to Rashford, which was defaced following the loss of the game, was later covered by loving messages from hundreds of the city’s residents. Notable public figures have done the same: one of the most heart-warming of which is Jason Sudeikis, who wore a jumper with the three lions' names to the season two premiere of his hit show, Ted Lasso. On his simple black sweatshirt were the players' names, “Jadon & Marcus & Bukayo”. It takes its cues from Hanya Yanagihara's harrowing novel A Little Life, the success of which saw the production and popularity of T-shirts displaying the four main character's names – “Jude & JB & Willem & Malcolm” – in sans serif font across the front.
IMAGE | ADOBE STOCK
The aftermath of the match, in both media and public spaces, has demonstrated that there is so much work to be done to combat discrimination. The game should be a matter of pride, not fuel for hatred and injustice.