Media organisations across the country signed up for a social media boycott in support of the Premier League and English Football League action this weekend.
The football leagues launched the blackout in exasperation at the failure of the tech giants to act to eradicate racism and hate directed against their players from their platforms.
It would have been incongruous for media companies not to support this action – effectively condoning the racism by continuing to stream reports about the players and games that the leagues were imposing a blackout on.
So, in effect, despite a loss of significant revenues for most publishers, they had little choice to support the boycott.
The questions that have exercised my mind this week in the lead up to the boycott, are these: What is the boycott going to achieve? What will the media companies achieve by imposing a blackout that will impact their businesses? And what about our staff who are routinely abused on social media – how do we square that circle?
I came to the conclusion that it is right to support the boycott for the following reasons.
What will the boycott achieve?
It has already achieved a lot. It has further raised the stakes for social media companies to take action. The power and influence of football cannot be overstated. Just look at the powerful backlash from the fans last month who scuppered the ambition of some of the most powerful football clubs in the world to create a European Super-League.
The campaign by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford to fight for better funding for school children’s home school meal support, forced the Government to perform an embarrassing U-turn. It was only after his intervention that the Government crumbled – having ignored all previous pleas from parents, schools and lobbyists.
And so, I may be naiive in this hope, but where Governments and media companies have failed in their attempts to regulate tech platforms or bring them to the table to coerce them to control commenting, irresponsible and dangerous posting and hate-inciting content on their platforms, the multi-billion pound influence of football clubs may succeed.
No doubt, there are already behind-the-scenes conversations taking place between Facebook, Twitter and other platforms with the football leagues as a result of the embarrassment being heaped on them and potential damage to their corporate brands. No company can ignore image-damaging publicity – no matter how big they are.
What will media companies achieve by supporting the boycott which comes at a cost to their own revenues?
Unlike the football clubs’ principled stance, this is also a business decision by the media companies to back a boycott. Referrals via social media to websites are still an important part of the business model for media companies. And with audiences following links to websites, comes revenue either through programmatic advertising revenue or people subscribing or paying directly for the content.
It would also be damaging for our brand reputations not to support the action of our football clubs – an important part of our content model – but also a partnership on which both rely. How could we possibly justify merrily tweeting running commentary or posting links to our reports on a platform that for this weekend the football clubs had declared persona non grata.
It does raise the question, if the clubs shout, do we have to mindlessly jump? The answer, of course, is no. We have to weigh every decision on their individual merits. But to my mind, it was right to partner with them.
This should act as a spur not only to support football in its campaign against racism, hate and homophobia, but to widen the campaign to every other aspect of irresponsibility made possible by an unregulated social media world.
As Stuart Brennan, Manchester City reporter for the Manchester Evening News, said on the Behind Local News website: “We at the Manchester Evening News stand with the players, the fans and everyone else who – when they go on social media – are met, on a daily basis, with horrendous abuse based simply on the colour of their skin, their religion, their gender or their sexual orientation.”
This is not just about football, this is about the everyday victims in every community who are exposed to abuse because social media exists.
We have made repeated entreaties to the tech platforms to act which have largely fallen on deaf ears. If this was happening on the streets, in pubs, in classrooms, or in workplaces, people would be arrested. Yet because people can hide behind the anonymity afforded by social media and post with impunity, without fear of consequence, they are emboldened to do so. We need a powerful momentum shift.
Just as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have made those issues mainstream, we now need to ensure this is not a flash in the pan.
We, as media organisations, need to collaborate and work together to build on the momentum. And if there is a powerful organisation we can partner with – the football industry – maybe this is just what is needed to coerce the tech platforms into action.
And so to my third question. What about our staff?
If we are prepared to impose a social media blackout in support of football players, why do we continue to expect our staff to use social media knowing they are opening themselves to similar type of abuse.
I do believe it is right to expect staff to continue to use a valid business tool to market and promote our content to as wide an audience as we can. We put journalists in harms way to report without fear or favour. That is what we do. We send journalists to war zones, we send them to demonstrations and we send them to front up unsavoury characters in pursuit of our craft.
Social media has become an essential part of our business as technology has shaped our profession. So we need to ensure our journalists use it. But with that comes responsibility. And this is where we need to be confident we are taking the appropriate measures.
The Government last month issued its Plan to safeguard journalists from danger and from abuse. However, it is just that – a plan. Every strategy needs execution to be successful. If we expect our journalists to use social media and recognise that this means they will be subject to abuse, we must do everything we can to protect, safeguard and act to support them.
As a corporate organisation, journalists should know that we will take up instances of abuse with those platforms that allow it to be surfaced and force them to take it down. As employers, we need to put in place reporting mechanisms and support systems to help our staff who become victims of abuse. And as an industry we need to collectively call out every instance of abuse when we see it, no matter if it is directed against someone who is not on our payroll. We need to educate our journalists about how to block, mute and report abusive users. And we need to continue to lobby those tech platforms to take action – but now form more powerful alliances outside of our industry and even Governments.
There should be a zero tolerance to abuse – we would not stand for it in any other walk of life, but in the ether of the internet, it appears that it is ok. This has to change. And I hope that the action this weekend can force a sea change in opinion to galvanise a powerful coalition of organisations to shame Tech platforms to act.
This blog is my personal opinion: If you have an opinion about this, please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org