TODAY’S Britain is a much less racist society than the one which I grew up in.
Yet I undoubtedly receive much more racial prejudice in 2023, more often, than I did thirty years ago. This is the paradox of racism in Britain today. There are fewer racists, because social norms have shifted across generations. But that shrinking group are just one click away from anybody with any public profile.
It may be partly good luck but I can recall few examples of anybody being racist to my face since an encounter on a bus in Eltham just before the turn of the century. My online experience could hardly be more different.
I went to see the new play ‘Dear England’ last week, which brings Gareth Southgate’s inclusive patriotism to the stage. It seemed fitting to wear my retro Euro ’96 England top to the National Theatre. I tweeted a picture of myself wearing it too – also spotting one more chance to plug my new book, How to be a patriot. “God himself couldn’t make you an Englishman,” came a tweet from a user, who went on to tell me that Marcus Rashford was African, not English.
By midweek, I had acquired a racist stalker, who was also tweeting abuse at anybody who celebrated the 75th anniversary of Windrush. “We have Africans in the British parliament, we ought not to”, he tweeted at David Lammy before accusing Foreign Secretary James Cleverly of being “out of his tiny African mind” for marking the anniversary, telling Rishi Sunak an Indian should not be Prime Minister, and Floella Benjamin that she should be deported. Even Home Secretary Suella Braverman, tweeting about trying to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, did not escape another rant about all of “foreigners” in parliament. “You’re no more British for having citizenship than I would be Jewish if I cut off my foreskin,” he told a Rabbi.
I flagged all of these tweets as ‘hateful conduct,’ using the Twitter reporting system. An email notification came back saying that Twitter could find no violation of its rules at all. The user was emboldened to call for racist violence, calling for the Windrush to be sunk, and saying the MPs were “traitors who must face violent retribution.” Twitter’s broken reporting system could still not see any breach of its rules. Nothing happened when I flagged this failure to Twitter staff, though the account was removed as soon as this failure to act was reported in the media. (I had a similar experience when reporting accounts calling for asylum hotels to be burned down; the system said they were within the rules, until that failure was reported in the media).
It is still possible to get the worst accounts suspended – as long as you can find ways around the public reporting system which the platform offers to users. A year ago, I found the best tactic was letting Twitter staff know directly about the system green-lighting the most violent and extreme ban-evaders. Since Elon Musk both weakened the rules and vastly reduced the staff capacity, that is now much less effective. It may now take pressure from the media or MPs to get action on even the most indefensible cases.
The debate about hate speech is often polarised. There are arbitrary examples of over-policing, while really extreme cases are left to fester. So let us concentrate first on some boundaries that 99% of us can agree on. After Euro 2020, Twitter finally agreed to change its rules, which had previously allowed racist content saying black people cannot be English. I see no sign, however, that the platform’s moderators are applying that rule.
The paradox is that black and Asian people have more voice, presence and profile than ever before. Yet the failures to deal with online abuse risk creating an increasingly unequal experience of public life. The stark failure to provide an adequate reporting system – giving a green light to content that would constitute racist abuse in law, and often letting banned users return with impunity – breaches legal duties to provide an equal service to those with protected characteristics.
There should be cross-party pressure for an Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation, as an incentive to put the basic foundations in place. With a little imagination, the intensity with which a handful of public figures in politics, sport and the media are targeted is an opportunity to monitor, catch and ban the worst offenders – and perhaps to pursue behaviour change with others, including giving accounts back on a probationary basis.
The failure to act on online racism will have a deeply corrosive impact. It does not just take me back thirty years personally. It makes it impossible for younger people to believe we have made progress. The platforms could easily do a lot more. In the Elon Musk era, this will only happen with effective external pressure to act.