From Parliament to the Premier League – lessons learnt from tackling the toxicity of online abuse

Philip Grindell
Written by Philip Grindell
from parliament to the premier league. lessons learned from tackling the toxicity of online abuse

Five steps to reduce the impact of online abuse in football

In 2016, following the murder of Jo Cox MP I was responsible for managing the team tasked with protecting UK politicians. Our goal was to stop the next attack and to set up the processes to gather intelligence and identify the scale of the online abuse being received, investigate those responsible and work with the Social Media platforms involved. In doing so I had the fortune to meet with and learn from the most esteemed global experts on the targeting of public figures. In doing so I learned a great deal and identified what would work in the UK. I tested many of the theories in a dissertation I wrote, reviewing how these they might have impacted the previous attacks on UK MPs. I developed very positive relationships with Facebook/Instagram and Twitter and introduced processes that not only identified a genuine threat of the kidnapping and murder of another female MP, but had a real impact on the reduction of abuse of MPs.

Five years down the line, it is interesting to witness many of the same issues now impacting football, a game I love.

There are many commonalities with the targeting of professional athletes we are now experiencing with the targeting of MPs I was responsible for.

The issue of anonymity:
These similarities start with the obvious, they are both targeted with horrendous abuse, much of it via social media. A common frustration is the fact that many of those who post abusive comments are perceived to be anonymous and with that a call for anonymity to be abolished.

The fact is that nearly all of us that use social media are forced to adopt a ‘username’ mainly because most of our actual names are already taken and being used. Most politicians and many public figures can and do try to use their own names, but even with these prominent individuals that isn’t always possible. The real issue is identifying the person behind the name. The police are perceived to have magic ability to achieve this but in many cases that simply isn’t the case. Very often, especially when trying to prove a crime they are required to formally identify the user by submitting applications to the social media provider, who will often only be able to provide an email address or phone number. The police then must resubmit a further application to the provider for the subscriber details. Depending on the company this ‘subscriber’ application can take two separate applications and considerable time. You quickly learn which companies are most obstructive. Another challenge is that police can only legally submit this application if an independent Superintendent authorises that the required threshold has been met. The UK has liberal freedom of speech legislation, which allow significant abuse before a law is broken. Very often the abuse is required to pass the test of being ‘grossly offensive’, a test that is not always satisfied.

Very often, this exhaustive process fails to identify the person responsible. A further complication, with specific regards to Twitter, is that at the point of engaging with them, they will automatically inform the user that they are subject to an investigation. At this point it is common for the user to delete their profile, and with it all their personal information. Twitter will then inform you that they no longer have any record of the data of the abuse of the user. This can be overcome with an understanding of the process and a good relationship with Twitter.

The issue of anonymity is often misunderstood and despite being the one that is very often discussed, is unlikely to change and in my opinion, nor should it.

Enforcing identification or increased verification of users will put people’s lives in danger in countries where regimes consider any contrary opinion to be a crime, often punishable by torture and death. Those whistle-blowers who rely upon being anonymous to expose corruption, prejudice and other forms of oppression will be silenced. The argument that we allow governments to identify users is fraught with dangers. I would not want the UK government having access to my Social Media data, not because I have anything to hide, but because I know they will abuse it. We saw the impact of data was abused with the Cambridge Analytica saga. If we cannot trust the UK government to have access to our data, why would we trust foreign oppressive regimes to have similar access to their citizens? If the UK enforces an end to anonymity so will oppressive regimes. We cannot expect to have one set of rules for the Social Media platforms in the UK whilst expect other countries not be to be afforded the same rights.

Difficult as it maybe to swallow for many, we must maintain the privilege of anonymity.

A global problem:
Another similarity is that much of the abuse comes from overseas. This poses several issues. Firstly, the UK does not have jurisdiction on overseas based abusers, so generally once the user is identified as being outside of the UK any police investigation ceases with immediate effect. In many cases this can include when the user is hidden behind a VPN and appears to originate from outside the UK.

Secondly, any consequences overseas are obviously limited and beyond the scope of UK authorities. That said, engagement with the social media platforms does help have overseas profiles deleted.

Demographics of victims:
One of the interesting facts identified was that those MPs targeted did fall into specific demographics. All MPs are targeted, but if you were a female, you were more likely to be targeted and the type of abuse you received would be very different to that which their male counterparts received. There are some similarities in football, albeit I am not privy to any data that suggests female footballers are disproportionately targeted. Secondly, much like footballers, if you were from an ethnic minority or a minority religion….such as Jewish, then you could expect to be targeted. Very often the abuse directed at MPs was inspired by current affairs and political tribalism. Politics, like football can be described as tribal. It may be assumed that only in football do their own fans abuse their own players, but that is a false assumption. Many Labour politicians will testify that were targeted, threatening, and intimidated by members of their own party.

How do I know if a death threat is a real threat?:
When I was called in to Parliament following the murder of Jo Cox, the fear of there being another attack was a major concern. There was an assumption that the social media abuse and any physical attack were connected.

Very often we would hear of what were commonly referred to as ‘death threats’ being made. These were rarely genuine threats of violence, rather just horribly threatening messages. There is very specific evidence that overwhelmingly those who make threats to prominent people, do not pose a genuine threat. As example, none of the MPs attacked since 2000, were threatened in any way by their attacker. This is important, because very often the person receiving the threats feels that they are in danger, and because they don’t know who is making the threats, they perceive that danger could be anywhere. This causes increased anxiety, paranoia, hyper vigilance, and suicidal thoughts.

The question is often asked “how can you tell who does pose me a real threat?” That is where my real expertise comes in. There are linguistic and behavioural indicators that can identify an escalation towards a physical threat. Many of the signs are counter intuitive, such as they rarely make threats. To the untrained or uneducated, these signs will be missed, and so when they conduct research, they will not find this evidence. It was this insight that enabled us to identify the threat made by a member of National Action against Rosie Cooper MP was genuine and not just another one of the many we analysed daily.

How to tackle online abuse:
A further similarity between the abuse targeted at politicians and footballers is the mistaken strategy that the ‘enemy’ was the Social Media platforms and that these powerful organisations would shame them in to changing their policies. Parliament’s powerful Home Affairs Select Committee demanded the Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg appear in front of them. Needless to say, he didn’t. UK representatives of the Social Media giants did appear, but despite the best efforts of ill-informed politicians they were not to be bullied.

The football authorities have not learned lessons from that period. Too often they have been led by hugely well-informed diversity leads when what is needed were specialists in tackling online abuse. Report after report has been published, sadly very often they are inaccurate in the same way that similar reports published by academics during my tenure in Parliament were flawed.

One key area was that much of what was published in the media was inaccurate and written by poorly informed reporters. We dealt in accurate statistics, facts and developing meaningful relationships with the Social Media platforms. We stood back from taking a hostile position and worked with our partners at Facebook and Twitter, understanding their policies and agreeing mutual outcomes. This enabled us to pick up the phone and speak with them, running scenarios past them and agreeing tactics. No longer were they receiving reports from hundreds of different sources daily, many of which were never going to reach the threshold of breaching their policies. We were able to fast track investigations and appeals, ensuring that evidence was secured, and profiles not removed before that had been achieved. Such was the strength of these relationships, that I have maintained them to this day.

Equally, understanding how the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) worked, and often failed to implement the legislation correctly was a huge advantage. I personally met with the then Director of Public Prosecutions and we agreed a strategy moving forward, again building relations with CPS experts who became good friends and were on speed dial for questions.

Technology isn’t the answer:
Almost daily I talk with tech companies seeking to tackle online abuse. We had the same situation in Parliament, a hope that technology would solve the problem. We attempted several solutions, using keywords, monitoring high-risk victims etc. The problem was that much of the abuse was context-driven, and at the end of the day we collated huge amount of data that someone must analyse. The actual number of messages that hit the threshold was not as high as initially expected, and especially when the criminal threshold is considered.

Many tech companies seek to stop the abuse being received. Their strategy is to alert recipients of the abuse but none identify the persons involved, assess whether the threshold has been crossed, criminally and for the Social Media platforms nor do they identify recidivist senders who pose a threat to a wide range of victims, or can decipher when the sender is harassing or stalking as opposed to just sending, nor are they able to identify escalation of threat. Expert humans do that.

Any response must be a combination of technology supported by human expertise.

Mental Health:
One of the most misunderstood issues about the impact of online abuse is the mental health aspect. It was quite usual to watch a MP give a press interview and speak about how the abuse made them more determined and demonstrated how resilient they were. That same MP would then meet with me and be understandably and visibly upset, hysterical or show clear signs of a mental breakdown. Sadly, we had very little to offer them and failed to resolve this most damaging impact of the abuse.

This demise in mental health caused several MPs to quit, but always had a performance impact, harming family life, inability to relax and often caused them to quit social media, which allowed the abusers to win and meant that the MP lost the narrative and were unable to fulfil their relationship with their constituents……or fans when transferred to the world of football. This is an absolute must for football. This isn’t a role for sports psychologist or a psychology graduate and member of the BPS. It requires expert, and confidential help.

Dedicated Single Point of Contact:
Conscious that every police force at that time was operating differently, I wrote to every Chief Constable requesting their help. We then had a dedicated officer at each force who we would speak with, and who could call us for advice. Operating separately is the exact opposite of what is required.

Football needs to adopt similar processes. It needs to work with experts, who have already been on this journey. There is no need to re-invent the wheel when that has already been achieved. Currently, each football club runs their own system, as do each of the footballing authorities. Each has the same effect, slowing down the process and damaging any opportunities to quickly identify those responsible. This is not a job for a diversity expert, it is a job for specialist investigators. One of the problems is that most of those selected for security roles in sport, are from the world of public order and policing football matches. They are not and have never been specialist investigators or intelligence experts, nor do they have genuine expertise in identifying and managing threats to public figures. These experts are not found in the close protection world, but from the world of Protective Intelligence.

The strength of the response was that my team in Parliament were the single point of contact, hugely experienced and genuine experts.

One significant difference between the political and football situation is the impact of the abuse and threats. When targeted at MPs, this abuse was deemed to be damaging democracy. There was clear evidence that MPs were standing down and resigning as MPs, others were worrying about and some changing how they voted in debates on Brexit. As such, the police were tasked with solving this issue, and Parliament funded my unit. We were only there to manage issues relating to MPs, and no-one else.

Football cannot claim that the impact is the same. It has real impact on those affected, much as it did to MPs, but it isn’t harming the security of the UK. Despite the funding that may be made available, a dedicated policing unit is unlikely to be agreed nor would that be appropriate. Are we going to suggest that footballers and public figures are treated differently than other victims of abuse by the police, especially as a time when policing is struggling to be properly resourced?

Consequences must be fit for purpose:
Nothing demonstrated this issue more than the comments made by former Arsenal & England international player Ian Wright. He suggested that the outcome had discouraged him from reporting further instances of racist abuse.

He was quoted as saying: “It’s a regular occurrence simply because there are no consequences for some of these people’s actions. They go to court. Like I say, this guy in Ireland, this judge let him off because it was a first offence, he comes from a decent family. I was getting teased by people saying, ‘It serves you right, you were trying to put a kid away’. See what happened? Nothing happened.”

The obvious challenge for football is that they must be seen to be following the appropriate processes. The question must be asked ‘what is the outcome football wants?’

One of the most important factors is immediate reporting through a single point of contact. Those involved must be deterred from sharing abusive posts on platforms. If the recipients want prosecutions, then reporting the police is the obvious process, albeit that again can slow the process down.

Whilst prosecutions can take place, there is no guarantee that they end in success and as we have seen with Ian Wright, very often the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

Much has been said of the attempt to tackle this by financially impacting the social media platforms. The problem with this is that they are looking externally when the solution is closer to home.

To make real change, there must be real consequences and those consequences must be enacted quickly. Social Media plays its part, but I don’t believe they own sole responsibility. To access social media, you had to have access to the internet, be that via a smartphone, tablet or computer. Those people who target the football players watch football, on sky sports, BT sports or via other means. Whilst I accept that consequences to non-UK abusers is more challenging, there are real opportunities to tackle abusers where it hurts.

Those found to have abused football players, male or female, should be subject to sporting banning orders. Why is it thought that a racist only abuses a football player, they should be banned from all sports?

Once identified, part of the television rights should include an agreement that those found to be abusive should have their ability to watch sports on TV curtailed. That ban may be a suspension or can be permanent or perhaps their subscriptions significantly increased.

Those identified of misusing the internet should suffer the consequences and lose their access to the internet. We know this is achievable as we already ban terrorists and child sexual abusers, so the process is already in place. Those who misuse the laws of the road suffer consequences, which may include losing their licence and awarded points, increasing the fees they pay for their insurance so why isn’t the same applied to misusing the internet.

The counter argument that this impacts others in the household. The same argument can be applied to a driving ban and yet we support the use of driving bans.

Five steps to reduce the impact of online abuse in football.

1. Football must be willing to listen and engage with external experts with proven experience in this niche field.

2. Anonymity is not the answer any more than Social Media is the enemy. This is a people problem not a tech problem. Equally, it wont be solved purely by technology.

3. A single point of contact, properly trained and educated about the appropriate thresholds, engaging with positive relationships with the Social Media platforms to the most effective key to solving this issue.

4. Proper consequences are required which not only impacts those who abuse footballers, and acts as a deterrent. Those consequences will need to support of the channels that distribute the games on tv as well as the internet and mobile providers.

5. The impact of being targeted online has significant implications on the recipients mental health. Any programmes initiated to support those impacted must include properly trained and experience mental health specialists.

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