Op-Ed: How brands can address the problem of racism on social media

15 Jun 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

The question of how should brands tackle the ever-increasing problem of racism on social media - and parrticularly in sport - is the subject of a new report from We Are Social Sport. The report's authors, Editor Dan Chirwa and Writer Rory Haworth-Galt (both pictured above), examine how brands can take a stand, highlighting some of the best positive examples of the past few months. 


Racism and sport - two words that are currently being used together on a depressingly regular basis, particularly in the world of football.

In the last month alone, Marcus Rashford received upwards of 70 racist messages following Manchester United’s defeat in the Europa League final. Racist emojis were sent to Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker's Instagram profiles following Man City’s defeat by Chelsea. England manager Gareth Southgate has made a social plea in an open letter entitled ‘Dear England’ to stop home fans booing players kneeling for racial equality. And Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has stated he believes social media is to blame for racism in football currently being at an 'all-time high'. 

Where fan abuse was once largely directed from the stands, social platforms place players in the direct line of abuse 24/7. While it’s hard to quantify incidents of unreported abuse online, several clubs have taken matters into their own hands. Swansea’s response to abuse of their own players was a week-long blackout which was joined by Rangers and Birmingham City. Initially, Swansea’s decisive action was scoffed at. 

However, this standalone act by a Championship club sparked a conversation that gathered momentum and led to the most recent social blackout across UK sport. From 30th April to 3rd May, athletes and corporations across football, cricket, rugby union, rugby league, netball, Formula 1 and more enacted a joint social media boycott to protest racism. Brands took clear action, with Sky Sports, Cadbury, adidas and BT Sport among the major names to blackout their socials.

To understand the impact of the boycott, we need to appreciate sport’s footprint on social media. Facebook IQ's 2018 report states that there are more than 400 million football fans on Facebook alone, with a further 140 million on Instagram - and this figure has grown even further since. During the blackout, users searching for their daily dose of punditry were fed clear anti-racist messages, in turn sparking conversations about the reason for the boycott. The brands involved were willing to sacrifice traffic, clicks, and views in order to fight for their values. 

For brands who have a role in sport, whether that’s clubs, sponsors, or those with an association with on field activity, there’s no room to hide. Racism thrives when others stay silent. Here are some ways that sports brands can take a stand. 

Create an anti-hate policy

All sport brands need to be equipped with anti-hate policies to handle racism and discimination in all forms. These values should be publicly visible. For example, Manchester United link directly to their 'See Red' discrimination reporting page from their social media. It is a clear public commitment to challenging online hate - using the power of their reach across all channels - and goes hand in hand with lobbying platform policymakers.

Speak up on social 

If a social account intended to be an inclusive space is a hotbed for hate, silence on the side of the brand can be deafening. Hiding comments isn’t enough; the ethos needs to be underlined and affirmed through community management. Brands that come prepared with strategies will always have more success in fostering the desired environment on their accounts. 

Prepare for key moments

Looking ahead to content and cultural moments that are likely to attract hate is a vital form of preparation. For smaller scale community management teams, responding to a select few catch-all comments sets the tone and shuts down bigotry. If hateful comments crop up regularly, consider a post sign-off that reinforces the tone of the page.

Know when to escalate 

Brands need to take proactive steps to eradicate hate from their own communities. In May, the BBC and Sky Sports joined forces to send a zero-tolerance message on online hate with the Hate Won't Win campaign. It renews the very public commitment of both organisations to tackle online hate and abuse.

Brave the backlash 

Companies must be willing to take the hit when setting out anti-racist policies (see our Braving the Backlash report, which covers anti-hate). Likes and Retweets may be replaced by negative comments, unfollows and scathing Quote Tweets from portions of a given follower base. It’s necessary to weather these conditions and for brands to be brave if true change is to be achieved. 

While critics claim that politics and sport don’t mix, it’s worth remembering that racism isn’t politics, it’s a human rights issue. Education and conversation are an integral part of the process of eliminating discrimination from sport and society as a whole. To stand on the sidelines ignoring racism is to deny its existence. Ultimately, this is harmful to everyone associated with your brand and the greater fight.

In the push towards equality, sport needs brand leaders to be actively anti-racist allies and brands to take ownership of the discourse in both their communities and of their communities.