Let’s talk about the ‘N’ word – 5 truths about tackling social media abuse

Philip Grindell
Written by Philip Grindell
let's talk about the n word. 5 truths about tackling social media abuse

Like most of England and Italy, I spent a very tense couple of hours glued to the tv last Sunday. Sadly, history repeated itself and England lost on the dreaded penalty shoot-out.

The three young, brave England footballers that didn’t convert their penalties just happened to be black. For reference two Italians missed too. What followed was inevitable, awful, sad and hugely disappointing.

The hugely disappointing aspect was compounded by the typically kneejerk and ineffective response by the footballing authorities and politicians.

I spent 4 years leading the team that was tasked with tackling the abuse, threats and intimidation directed at the UK Members of Parliament following the shocking assassination of Jo Cox MP, the Labour MP for Batley & Spen, in 2016. I led the team through the extremely toxic Brexit period when the hostility directed at UK politicians was at its most heated. My point is, I have been through this before and having spent much of that time engaging with politicians, social media platforms, the Police & CPS, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the media I have some experience in the area, arguably more than most.

I have had the good fortune to discuss some of these issues with incredibly passionate and well-meaning representatives from organisations such as the Football Association, Kick It Out, The EFL and even a few football agents.

Sadly, I have found them to be wanting, lacking in the real understanding of the issues and devoid of realistic ideas of how to tackle the abuse directed at professional athletes. In almost every case I have been assured that they have automated processes in place with leading tech providers and are satisfied that they have the expertise they require, and yet these processes failed, and the athletes continued to be abused.

I believe that there are opportunities to tackle social media abuse, and here are 5 truths that will help us progress, if we have the energy and courage to think differently.

  1. Anonymity is a red heron!

Almost every time the debate about social media abuse is discussed, the issue of anonymity and ID verification is raised. Petitions are created and hundreds of thousands sign up, misled by ‘experts’ and those in positions of authority that this will make a huge difference. It won’t.

Here is the uncomfortable truth; the issue of anonymity is pretty much a myth. The fact is that vast majority of those who post abusive, racists and threatening communications do so in their own name or are very quickly identifiable through some simple Open-Source research. When running the team in Parliament we rarely found a profile that we were unable to identify the owner of.

The UK is a liberal country, and we enjoy freedom of speech. That includes being argumentative, insulting and even abusive. Not everything abusive is illegal. In fact, when we look at the Communications Act, the main piece of legislation with regards to Social Media abuse, the term ‘Grossly Offensive’ is the key term. That term is not defined as such but is broadly interpreted by the use of case law. The challenge is that very often a person will say ‘I am grossly offended’ and the criminal justice system will say ‘actually, no you’re not’

In order for a post to be subject to criminal investigation and for the relevant authorities to be sanctioned to evidence the identity of the person posting, it must be considered grossly offensive. Very often this is the sticking point and is why the Police suggest that are unable to identify the user. As a private consultant, we don’t need to comply with the same standards and are often asked to identify users which we do very successfully anywhere in the world. Very often from an investigative perspective the problem wasn’t with the social media platform, it was with the internet or mobile phone provider releasing data.

Very often the social media platforms will take the view that whilst the post is offensive and abusive, it is an opinion and is not unlawful and as such they won’t remove it.

A key reason that ‘anonymity’ and the use of ID verification will never happen is twofold. Firstly, this cannot be seen as a myopic UK centric issue. Those who choose to be anonymous do so because that anonymity protects them in politically unstable regimes or those where human rights doesn’t exist. It protects those who choose to be whistle-blowers. And yes, at times it protects those who abuse others.

When looking at the UK alone, The Electoral Commission found that over 3 million people, 8% of the UK electorate – don’t have any form of photo ID and very often they are from the communities most effected by abuse. By enforcing ID verification, we would cause a significant number of people to be unable to use social media.  We would also set a precedent that the regimes mentioned would use to enforce the rules in their countries. We cannot expect this to be a UK only issue.

  1. Social Media is a global, not a UK issue.

According to figures published this week, up to 70% of the abuse directed at our footballers originated from outside of the UK.

Some of these will be UK users that are hiding their IP addresses by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address, so your online actions are virtually untraceable. Not everyone uses them for nefarious reasons. I use one. I advise clients to use one. The reason for this is to protect my location so that my privacy is maintained. Whilst we are on the subject of IP, turning your wi-fi box off and then back on again, provides you with a new IP, so it isn’t a static reference.

In practical terms, when a user if found to be overseas, in the majority of cases the UK police will not continue their investigations. The reason is one of jurisdiction. There are occasions where the UK Police can liaise with the country where the individual is based and transfer the investigation to that jurisdiction, but that only happens where they have ‘like’ offences, and my experience is that is rare.

  1. It is a security not a diversity issue.

An interesting pattern when engaging with any of the footballing authorities is that they see social media abuse as a diversity rather than a security issue. Whilst it is correct that some of the issues are diversity matters, I believe that the priorities are unbalanced. Any abuse, threats and intimidation towards another should be treated very much as security issue. When I was called into Parliament, I wasn’t asked to set up a diversity unit, I was asked to run an investigative unit. I do believe that diversity and inclusion is key in solving the issues. It helps to change attitudes, educate and support those involved; however, I believe that security should lead on this issue. The reason is that whilst education is key, those posted abusive and threatening message will be largely unaffected by this, evidence needs to be gathered, they need to be investigated and then dealt with, those impacted need to be protected. These are security issues!

  1. The ‘N’ word etc

All too often I hear ‘experts’ blaming Social Media and suggesting that their algorithms should stop all abusive terms.  As mentioned, I was informed that the footballing authorities had automated processes in place which would stop the abuse. I suggested that wouldn’t happen and sadly was proved correct. The issue is not the words used; it is the context in which the words are used.

One of the most offensive words a white person can use is the ‘N’ word. Understandably many are surprised when offensive posts on social media are not immediately removed. However, it is all about context. Whilst it is a word no white person should ever use; the black community use the ‘N’ word liberally. It is used in everyday speech, music, TV and films and sports. I am not making any judgement of that, but if you search for the ‘N’ word in Twitter in any of the various spellings you will find thousands of usernames and posts containing that word. The question is: should Twitter remove all over those posts? Should they ban anyone using that word or does the context matter?



The point is that the use of automation and key words is problematic and can be misleading.  It is almost impossible to stop every abusive post, especially when they are not directed at particular athletes, but used in a nuanced manner.


One of the other issues that we experienced is that words, emojis and phrases mean different things in different parts of the world. I recall having to explain to Facebook why the term ‘Coconut’ when directed at a black MP was offensive. It seems obvious the those of us in the UK, less so in other countries. This is compounded when the person (or bot) that posts it is from outside the UK.  Should we ban the use of a banana emoji because some use it in a racial context? The social media platforms have to look at the context behind each post to rationalise whether it breaches their policies, which is not as straightforward as it may seem.

  1. We need real consequences, as long as they don’t cost the big companies any money!

This week the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that the online racists will be banned from attending football matches. Nothing demonstrated how little is understood by the authorities than that statement. Is there any evidence that those who have posted such abuse actually go to football matches? Why only football matches? Are we saying that they can’t go to a football match, but they go and watch rugby or cricket or athletics?

The problem is that the consequences of being caught posting abuse do nothing to deter anyone. A fine several months after the incident is meaningless.

BT Sport recently launched their Hope United and Sky Sports their Online Hate Campaign. Despite their huge marketing and PR campaigns, in real terms they are almost meaningless. That’s unfair, they will encourage debate and broaden exposure of the subject. However they won’t mean anything to those that abuse athletes. I recently posted a comment on LinkedIn about how Sky Sports could make a real impact by banning abusers from watching sports on their channels, I was immediately blocked by Sky Sports and their senior management on LinkedIn. Herein lies the issue. The real consequences may cost the big companies money, they will require thinking outside of the box, they will need to have a real impact on those who abuse others.

Those found to have been racially abusive to any athlete should have their internet access limited. If you cannot be trusted to drive your car safely, you lose the right to use it. The same should apply to those who misuse the internet. Sky Sports and BT Sports should ban them from having access to their channels so they cannot watch football in the comfort of their own homes. I know that they can watch it at a friend’s or down the pub, but its and start will still have a real impact on them.

The impact has to be relevant to those who pose such abuse. Lifetime bans from all sports, prevent them watching sport and commenting by limiting their access to the internet. We blame social media but not those that provide them access to social media…why?

What is currently being done to tackle abuse on social media clearly isn’t working. It is time that those with a platform to influence started to communicate intelligently and discuss real rather than populist solutions. There is no quick fix, this isn’t a social issue, it is a societal one. We must accept that we have a societal issue and start to fix that before we can expect to see any change on social media.


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