French police probe racist abuse of football stars on Twitter

·3-min read

French prosecutors have opened an investigation into a wave of racist comments posted on Twitter targeting members of the national football team. England’s footballers have also been subjected to sustained abuse online during their matches at Euro 2020, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper.

The French comments, notably targeting black Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, were posted after France was eliminated from the Euro 2020 tournament last week.

Mbappe was the only French player to miss in the penalty shoot-out against Switzerland.

The insults in question were violently offensive and clearly racial. They were rapidly removed for the social platform, but not before French magistrates decided to launch their investigation.

France has also been having a wider public debate over how to balance the right to free speech with the need to prevent hate speech, in the wake of the controversial case of a teenager who can not be identified for legal reasons.

The 18-year-old sparked a furore last year when her videos, criticising Islam in vulgar terms, went viral on social media.

She was subjected to such vicious harassment that she was forced to leave school and was placed under police protection.

A French court on Wednesday imposed suspended prison sentences of between four and six months on 11 people who were found guilty of online harassment.

While President Emmanuel Macron is among those who have defended her right to state an opinion, former Socialist president Francois Hollande said her original remarks amounted to "hate speech" against Muslims.

France's strict hate speech laws criminalise inciting hatred against a group based on their religion or race, but they do not prevent people from criticising or insulting religious beliefs.

Access to documents

A French court on Tuesday ordered Twitter to give activists full access to all documents relating to its efforts to fight racism, sexism and other forms of hate speech on the social network.

Six anti-discrimination groups had taken Twitter to court in France last year, accusing the US social media giant of "long-term and persistent" failures in blocking hateful comments from the site.

The Paris court ordered Twitter to grant the campaign groups full access to all documents relating to the company's efforts to combat hate speech since May 2020. The ruling applies to Twitter's global operation, not just France.

Guardian reveals scale of the problem in England

Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper in London has carried out a study of Twitter messages directed at and naming the England team during the three group stage matches, and has identified more than 2,000 abusive messages, including scores of racist posts.

The Guardian research, conducted in association with the anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate, illustrates the shocking levels of hatred, directed by hundreds of individuals at team captain Harry Kane, forward Raheem Sterling, other England players and the manager, Gareth Southgate.

The offensive tweets include 44 explicitly racist tweets, with messages using the N-word and monkey emojis directed at black players, and 58 that attacked players for their anti-racist actions, including taking the knee.

Sanjay Bhandari, the chairman of Kick It Out and of the Football Online Hate Working Group, said: “The findings from this research are saddening because they are so grimly predictable.

Abuse and discrimination aimed at minorities and their allies have become sadly normalised on social media to the point where a piece of hate is taken down every second of every minute of every hour of every day, 365 days a year.

“This is an industrial-scale technology problem that requires industrial-scale technology solutions. We need social media to step up the pace on developing technology solutions."

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