Twitter pushed back against growing public pressure to end anonymity on the platform to prevent racist attacks on sports players of color, in a blog post published Tuesday.
Three Black players on England’s soccer team received torrents of racist abuse on Twitter and Instagram after missing goal opportunities in the final of the Euro 2020 tournament in June. Twitter said it removed more than 2,000 posts in total for racist abuse relating to the final. Many of the U.K.’s major sporting bodies, as well as the public and media commentators, responded to the abuse by calling on social media platforms to end online anonymity and force users to sign up using official ID documents. More than 690,000 people signed a petition calling on the U.K. government to make verified forms of ID a legal requirement for new social media accounts.
“It’s time tech firms ban all anonymous accounts and insist on ID so we can see how brave these bigoted scumbags feel when they’re made accountable,” wrote Piers Morgan, a columnist for British tabloid the Daily Mail. The Premier League also called on social media platforms to subject all users to an “improved verification process” that would help law enforcement identify the people behind any accounts that are involved in racist abuse. “We cannot succeed until you change the ability of offenders to remain anonymous,” the League wrote in a letter to the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook (which owns Instagram) in April 2021.
However, in the report published Tuesday, Twitter poured cold water on the idea that anonymity is a significant driver of racism online. The company said that 99% of accounts suspended for racist abuse after the Euro 2020 final were not anonymous. “Our data suggests that ID verification would have been unlikely to prevent the abuse from happening—as the accounts we suspended themselves were not anonymous.”
Anonymity: ‘a convenient scapegoat’
The news was welcomed by digital activists who had come out in support of online anonymity.
“Twitter’s confirmation that most of the accounts associated with racist attacks during the Euro 2020 final were not anonymous is further proof that anonymity is not the problem, but instead a convenient scapegoat,” says Melody Patry, advocacy director at Access Now, a digital rights group. “Addressing online abuse means having the political will and resources to tackle racism, the root cause of the attacks. That’s true for the platforms as well as governments.”
“As long as racism exists offline, we will continue to see people try and bring these views online—it is a scourge technology cannot solve alone,” Twitter said in the blog post. “Everyone has a role to play—including the government and the football authorities—and we will continue to call for a collective approach to combat this deep societal issue.” Twitter said it was trialing temporary automatic blocking of accounts that use harmful language and it was rolling out prompts that encourage users to rethink the words they use in replies.
The U.K. government has said that its upcoming online safety legislation will “address anonymous harmful activity.” But it has signaled that it is wary of forcing users to sign up to social media with official identification. “User ID verification for social media could disproportionately impact vulnerable users and interfere with freedom of expression,” the government said in a response to the petition calling for such a policy.
In the U.K., posting racist comments online targeting specific individuals can be prosecuted as a hate crime. Twitter and Instagram said they had removed thousands of racist comments in the wake of the Euro 2020 final, yet the U.K.’s National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) released a statement on Aug. 5 saying that of 207 posts deemed to be criminal, only 34 (16%) had come from accounts in Britain, and 11 arrests related to the abuse had been made.
Some observers initially suspected that users in other countries were largely responsible for the bulk of the racist tweets.
“I know a lot of that [abuse] has come from abroad, people who track these things are able to explain that, but not all of it,” said the England team’s manager, Gareth Southgate, in the immediate aftermath of the team’s defeat.
A lawmaker in the ruling Conservative Party, Michael Fabricant, even called on the government to investigate how much abuse had come from outside the U.K. “Is it overseas fans or foreign states attempting to destabilize our society?” he wrote in a letter to the Home Secretary. “I hope…this abuse is not home grown.”
Twitter’s report on Tuesday may have dashed such hopes. “While many have quite rightly highlighted the global nature of the conversation, it is also important to acknowledge that the U.K. was—by far—the largest country of origin for the abusive tweets we removed on the night of the Final and in the days that followed,” the company said. A Twitter spokesperson declined to provide the underlying statistics.
In a statement to TIME on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the NPCC explained the discrepancy by saying Twitter’s reference to more than 2,000 racist tweets “relate[s] to a different category of posts” than those police investigated and that not all racist posts had been reported to law enforcement. “Our investigative update focused on the 207 posts that had met the criminal threshold out of 600 posts that were flagged to us from across social media platforms by individuals, charities and clubs,” the statement said. “We investigate those reports and referrals that we receive. Posts that don’t meet the criminal threshold are a matter for social media companies.”
The NPCC said on Aug. 5 that it was still waiting for social media companies to share information about 50 (24%) of the 207 accounts deemed to have tweeted racist abuse that met the criminal threshold.
The delay hints at another potential roadblock for arrests: social media companies themselves. The platforms tend to safeguard their users’ data from law enforcement requests. Twitter transparency data show that in the second half of 2020, the most recent period for which numbers are available, Twitter complied with just 33.6% of requests for user information from UK law enforcement, the company’s lowest rate of compliance since 2015.
Twitter’s resistance to demands from police has won the company praise in other countries. It has refused thousands of requests by the Indian government to hand over data on users such as dissidents and political opponents.
But in the U.K., footballing bodies have criticized social media companies’ hesitance to hand over data. In April, the Premier League boycotted Twitter and Instagram for several days over what it said was a failure to tackle racist abuse, specifically calling on the companies to “actively and expeditiously assist the investigating authorities in identifying the originators of illegal discriminatory material.” Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, in the case of the Euro 2020 tournament, U.K. police say platforms were quicker to act than they are during the rest of the football season, when racist abuse does not go away. “We have only been able to progress the investigations and make early arrests because the social media platforms have turned our requests around so promptly,” said Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the UK National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for football policing, in a statement to TIME. “My hope and expectation is that the same level of responsiveness is carried forward as we need to relentlessly tackle hate crime 365 days a year and not just during tournaments.”