Britain is a much less racist country than the one I grew up in. Yet I have received more racist abuse in the last four weeks than the previous 40 years. This paradox can be explained in a single word: technology. More specifically, Twitter. It helps to explain why, last week, social media once again became the key battleground for tacking racism.
Growing up, my experiences of racism were pretty banal. If you called me a “paki” in the playground, you could expect a sarcastic lecture about the need to get an atlas, as my dad is from India. Nobody ever hit me but as a football-mad teenager in the 1980s, I heard shocking racism, which was eventually stamped out by the mid-1990s. Monkey chanting in the ground has given way to hatred on social media – see the racist abuse against Paul Pogba of Manchester United and other leading black players which hit the headlines last week.
It is more than 20 years since anyone was racist to my face and I would rarely encounter racism at all if I weren’t on Twitter. But I am an addict. The platform can even tell me that I have sent more than 180,000 tweets over the last 11 years.
I’ve found it an enormously positive experience, although worrying about the growing incivility of public discourse led me to invent #positivetwitterday in 2012, promoting it in an unusual alliance with blogger Guido Fawkes. This annual fixture, on the last Friday in August, challenges tweeters to behave civilly for at least one day, a symbolic way to deepen the conversation about what we can all do to shape the social media culture that we want. I’m pleased that this year Twitter is also supporting it.
So users can shift the tone of online discourse, but the racist firestorm I’ve experienced this month demonstrates why social media companies must play their part.
Ironically, this began when I shared some good news about progress on race: an Observer report on research that nine out of 10 people don’t think you have to be white to be English. That sort of social change is a welcome message for, well, about nine out of 10 people. Several hundred people retweeted and liked the tweet, but I also heard how angry the most toxic members of that shrinking racist minority felt about it.
I decided to report the racial abuse that I received to Twitter’s systems, something I had never done before. The results were illuminating. I reported about 50 racist users that weekend. About a third were deemed out of order; two-thirds were judged to be OK.
What sorts of racism does Twitter let users get away with? You probably won’t get away with calling somebody “nigger”, but I was told by Twitter that “You are not British, parjeet – you people are shitting in the street” was acceptable. I emailed back to ask what more the user had to say to break the “hateful conduct” rules. A response just said it had been checked and upheld. I wondered how often a human being was reading my messages – and how often an algorithm.
Getting these boundaries right is difficult. I want Twitter to do more against racists, but I don’t think they should ban Donald Trump, for example – though some of his tweets might have to go. With the aim of at least educating users, I began a new hashtag, #doesnotviolate, to promote transparency about what gets allowed.
Twitter says it abhors racism on the platform, but its current rules permit racism and racist speech, only banning users who promote violence or make threats or harassment on racial grounds. It did tighten its anti-hatred policies this month and dehumanising tweets against faith groups now violate the rules. Twitter gave examples: “We need to exterminate the rats; the Jews are disgusting” would now be out of order. I was astonished that it wasn’t already. Yet say exactly the same thing about black people and it’s still OK. That is, tweets dehumanising racial groups are deemed by Twitter to still be acceptable. Changing their policies on this is an urgent necessity.
Racists banned from football grounds can’t just turn up again the following weekend, but hundreds of virulent racist accounts banned from Twitter openly celebrate how easily they flout that.
New rules won’t help if Twitter can’t enforce them. Solidarity from other tweeters included sending me astonishing evidence of just how repeatedly those orchestrating harassment of me had been banned. A virulent antisemite using the handle “Noxious Jew” openly boasts about being the same banned user. Twitter allowed him to reregister dozens of his vile variations, such as “Fetid Jew”, “Pungent Jew”, “Malodorous Jew”, with messages sarcastically hashtagged #myfirsttweet asking his racist network to rebuild his audience. I sent that to Twitter’s enforcement team and got an email back saying it could not find any violation of its rules.
Racists banned from football grounds can’t just turn up again the following weekend, but hundreds of virulent racist accounts banned from Twitter openly celebrate how easily they flout that. Twitter needs to combine technology and human capacity to sort this out.
Is reporting online racism futile? “Just block and move on,” I was told. But the answer to racism in football grounds wasn’t earplugs for black and Asian fans. We changed the culture at the grounds. It is a mistake to think of “online” and “offline” as hermetically sealed worlds. If we don’t emulate the progress we made in playgrounds and stadiums on social media this organised effort to relegitimise racism on social media will leak back into society.
Phil Neville, manager of the England’s women’s team, proposes a six-month boycott by footballers. But I don’t want to leave the platform. Instead, it must be time for Twitter to show racism the red card and to mean it.
• Sunder Katwala is director of British Future