Social media abusers must face 'real world consequences', says FA equality director

Online trolls must face “real world consequences” as the fight against discrimination continues, according to the Football Association’s equality director Edleen John.

John was one of the key speakers at a virtual event on Tuesday to discuss the issue of online abuse in football, to which MPs and peers from across Parliament were invited.

It was jointly hosted by the Football Association, Premier League, English Football League, anti-discrimination campaigners Kick it Out and the all party parliamentary group (APPG) for digital regulation and responsibility, along with 11 additional APPGs.

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Chaired by former Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, chair of the digital regulation and responsibility APPG, former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry and England’s Manchester City defender Lucy Bronze talked about their experiences of having been subject to abuse on social media.

John, who started her role as the FA’s new international, corporate affairs and co-partner for equality, diversity and inclusion director in September 2020, spoke on the recently announced Online Safety Bill and what any eventual legislation may look like.

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John hopes that, when enshrined in law, it will prove “fit for purpose”.

“We really welcome the Online Safety Bill and the draft that we have seen,” said John.

“As is the case with all areas of legislation, there are elements [where] we think we can work with them [Parliament] to influence, change and make sure it is more directly applicable and relevant for our football stakeholders.

“We will work so this topic of conversation continues, so that the bill reaches a place we are all happy and comfortable with, in relation to the powers which are going to be included.”

Last week, the Metropolitan Police revealed 12 men had been arrested or interviewed under caution following online racist abuse directed at a player in Tottenham’s 3-1 home defeat to Manchester United.

Although the Met did not confirm the target of the abuse, referring in a statement only to “a high-profile London footballer”, Spurs forward Heung-min Son was targeted by trolls during the game in London on April 11.

John added: “What we want is real-world consequences for what is happening in the online space – and that hasn’t happened to the level or to the degree that we would like thus far.

“That is why for us legislation is quite important and social media organisations of course need to continue to work with law enforcement to make sure that that change can happen.

“But in order to do that we need the legislation to be able to drive things forward and to provide the necessary benchmark rules that people have to abide by and that individuals have to abide by.

“As we look at the Online Safety Bill draft at the minute, of course there are really clear guidelines around illegal content, but a lot of the abuse that happens online is actually what would be classified as legal content, but harmful.

“We want to make sure that the Online Safety Bill has some teeth in addressing some of those issues because we recognise that things like emojis and memes similarly really impact our stakeholders across football.”

John feels while football has made some progress and gained plenty of widespread support – with the recent four-day social media boycott driven by sport a key development – there remains more hard work ahead.

“We need to make sure that actually our actions and the focus that we have isn’t momentary and continues to build in terms of momentum, widening more broadly across society because football impacts so many people across not only England but the globe,” she said.

“We need to make sure that our messages around anti-discrimination and equality have that same momentum and that same snowball effect to all of the stakeholders, players, fans and everybody else out there who engages in football.

“We have been on a journey, we continue to be on that journey, but we know there is more to be done and we are committed to making that change.”

Tuesday marked a year since the murder of George Floyd in the United States, which sparked global anti-discrimination protests and demands for change across all different areas of life.

European governing body UEFA launched a new campaign encouraging everyone involved in football to signing up to an Equal Game campaign, which is spearheaded by Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho, Moise Kean, Pernille Harder, Matthijs de Ligt and Joao Felix.

Earlier, UK Athletics had marked the anniversary by reaffirming “its commitment to zero tolerance of racism and all forms of discrimination”, while Rugby Football League chief executive Ralph Rimmer wrote an open letter admitting his sport needs to do more.

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Kick It Out is football’s equality and inclusion organisation – working throughout the football, educational and community sectors to challenge discrimination, encourage inclusive practices and campaign for positive change.

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