Alumni, research

Euro 2020: could Twitter stop racist abuse before it happens?

Dr Ruth Adams of CMCI met up (online) with Dr Nicole Ferdinand, Senior Lecturer in Events Management at Oxford Brookes University, to learn more about her groundbreaking work as part of the research collective RUAIRERUAIRE stands for Responsible Use of AI in Recreation and International Events, and is dedicated to using AI and other technologies to improve society. Nicole was one of CMCI’s first PGR students, and gained her doctorate in 2015 with a thesis on the internationalization of the ‘Trinidad-style’ Carnival.  

In the midst of the furore surrounding the racist abuse that black England players were subject to following England’s defeat by Italy in the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship in July this year, Nicole and her colleagues published their findings and recommendations in an article on The Conversation website. They quickly found their expertise and insight on such a hot topical issue in demand for media interviews.  Nicole appeared on both BBC Radio 4’s flagship evening current affairs programme, PM, and on the popular Caribbean morning television programme Brighter Mornings with Bhoe. Recent guests on the morning show have included the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. 

RUAIRE’s research calls into question the adequacy of both the existing policies of social media companies and the UK government’s proposed Online Safety Bill to effectively shut down, or at least minimize online hate speech and targeted racial abuse.  RUAIRE calls instead for proactive measures that target not trolls but the vast majority of internet users who may not be fully aware of how messages are circulated and become influential online.  There is a need, they argue, for better education in ‘digital citizenship’ that equips people with a critical understanding of social media and an ethical framework that guides their online activity. 

RUAIRE was established with funding from Ulster University with an initial project brief to use AI and chatbot technologies to improve the experience of fans attending North West 200, a large and long-established motorbike road race event in Northern Ireland.  Although the event was cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, the work of the research group won the approval of the event organisers and an Impact Award from Ulster University.

The group found their next project in another big sporting event, the 2020 Euros.  Dr Ferdinand and her colleagues began tracking social media activity relating to the tournament using a methodology that was initially developed at Bournemouth University for the purpose of enabling festival organisers to evaluate their success by using online narratives of event stakeholders.

July 7th 2021, Italy versus England, final match of European soccer cup 2021

The researchers were certain that, whatever the result, there would be an interesting story to tell about the football, but England reaching the final of a major international competition for the first time since 1966 seemed perhaps an unlikely part of the narrative.  More predictable sadly was the racism that followed England’s defeat, after three young black players missed penalties.  Tracking Twitter content by hashtags, Nicole and her fellow researchers traced a shift in the tenor of tweets from positivity about diversity in the pre-match period to an overwhelming emphasis on racism in post-match media activity.  Topics relating to racism – including a backlash against it and an outpouring of support for the players affected – dominated post-match coverage.  Twitter, Nicole asserts, is now key in setting the news agenda.  

Politicians, including senior members of government, publicly condemned the racist messages and demanded that Twitter take action, primarily by removing the anonymity of posters so that legal action against individuals could be taken.  However, Dr Ferdinand explained that this approach fails to take into account how social media actually functions in practice.  Internet trolls often use bots and fake and hacked accounts, so requiring identification to set up an account ‘would create a barrier for them to get over, but it wouldn’t actually eliminate the problem’.  Nor is it sufficient for Twitter et al to remove offensive posts once they have already circulated widely. RUAIRE advocates for social media platforms to apply controls ‘to slow down the flow of hate speech.’ As Nicole observes, the number of racist tweets are actually fairly small, but they become massively amplified.  ‘Twitterstorms’, she says, are generally fed by well-meaning people who are strongly opposed to hate speech, and in seeking to call it out and shame it they simply succeed in spreading the very message they are against.  Alerts along the lines of the ‘want to read the article first?’ messages that Twitter users receive when retweeting media content could potentially reduce the traffic in hateful content by encouraging users to stop and think of the consequences before they post.