Marie van der Zyl
Marie van der Zyl

Abuse of England players was entirely predictable

England's Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, and Bukayo Saka.
England's Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, and Bukayo Saka.

In the wake of England’s Euro202 final loss to Italy on Sunday, social media was awash with anti-black racism aimed at some players. This was hideous – but also, sadly, entirely predictable. Enough racism has been aimed at black footballers via social media over the past few years for media companies to have been well aware of how their sites would be used to spread hate in the event of an England loss. Yet these platforms appear to have prepared no contingency plans to combat the hatred, which was once again allowed to run rampant.

The same, alas, is equally true when it comes to racism aimed at other communities, including our own. Every time there is a significant flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, social media platforms become an open sewer of antisemitic hatred. Again, this is entirely predictable. And yet, when such a flare-up happened a few scant weeks ago, social media companies appeared to have once again been caught napping. Jews were targeted online – so much so that many Jewish users felt unable to use platforms such as Instagram or Twitter – but social media was also used to facilitate real-life events where antisemitic hatred was on show, such as the now infamous hate drive through Jewish neighbourhoods in London, where people waving Palestinian flags called for Jewish women to be raped. This sort of behaviour has gone unchecked for far too long.

At a recent meeting of Jewish communal organisations with Oliver Dowden MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Board of Deputies asked him to write to social media companies asking them to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. We are pleased to say Mr Dowden has done so, writing to Twitter, Facebook (which also owns Instagram), Google (which owns YouTube), Snap and TikTok and “strongly encouraging” them to adopt the definition “and consider its practical application in the development of your company’s policies and procedures”.

We asked the government to push for this because numerous conversations with such social media companies have regretfully led us to the conclusion they will not adopt the definition unless the government urges them to. The conversations have all gone similarly – we ask them to adopt it, they say that many of the IHRA definition’s points are already part of their community standards. When we point out the significant gaps in these standards – gaps that would be covered by the definition – they essentially shrug their shoulders and say we will have to agree to disagree.

But we are not prepared to simply let this go. We will be following up with the secretary of state, asking him to write to Ofcom, the planned regulator for the online space as set out in the government’s Online Safety Bill, urging them to adopt the IHRA definition and use it when assessing whether social media companies are effectively combating antisemitism. There is a clear precedent – earlier this year, the education secretary asked the Office for Students, the higher education regulator, to adopt the definition and use it when determining whether universities were acting correctly when responding to antisemitism cases. We see no reason why there should not be a similar approach towards the online space.

The multibillion pound corporations owe a significant duty of care to their users. There is absolutely no excuse for their inaction. And we hope that if social media companies are made to institute strong measures to combat antisemitism, these can be used as a blueprint for other minority communities to similarly fight back against the hatred directed against them online, making social media a safer place for all.

About the Author
Marie van der Zyl is the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews
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