Racist abuse online is not new. It has been happening for decades. In the past couple of days, racist abuse has hit the headlines following vile online attacks against three England footballers, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. On Sunday, these three black players did not score penalties in the crucial closing minutes of the UEFA European Championships final match against Italy.
The vast majority of people are shocked and angered by the racist abuse against these three players. However, I doubt that the players themselves are as surprised as the rest of us. They will have already have suffered a seemingly endless stream of online abuse for many years. To anyone who is not white, online racism is a daily reality.
Therefore, the crucial question to answer is how does the Internet enable people to be racist online in social media outlets, for example. If we can understand how these racist posts originate, it means we can at least reduce them and, possibly, eliminate them entirely.
The simple answer to the question is that the sickening array of vile racist posts online arise because the social media companies allow them. Indeed, Instagram is under fire because it has said that posting known racist emojis of monkeys and bananas is not outside its community guidelines. The companies are clearly making a choice. They have obviously decided that freedom of expression is more important than the harm produced.
Social media companies could change things
Yet, they also have the power to allow freedom of speech and reduce the harm at the same time. But they are not making that decision.
All they need to do is to prevent accounts from being set up anonymously. It is perfectly possible to verify identity using passport records, for instance. That would mean that every account would be a known and identifiable individual. No bots. No anonymous accounts.
That’s vital. Study after study over the past couple of decades has shown that social media anonymity allows hatred to arise. People feel protected by saying vile things because no one will be able to know who they are. Not only can they have an anonymous account, if that account does get banned because it posts something racist, another one can be set up within seconds. That would not be possible if identification checks took place.
Most racist abusers know that what they are saying is wrong. Indeed, if they thought it was OK, they would not wish to remain anonymous. So why do people want to say things they know to be wrong? That’s because social media activity provides massive dopamine influxes into your brain. Someone “likes” your comment? Dopamine rush. Someone shares your post? Dopamine rush. Someone comments on your post? Dopamine rush.
Social media companies have created dopamine junkies. And that’s deliberate, not a coincidence. The more we become addicted to that rush of positive emotion, the more we stick to those social media companies. The income they gain from creating dopamine junkies is almost double the revenue from the $55bn global heroin trade. Facebook alone generated $85bn in 2020.
The Internet encourages confirmation bias
Of course, there are some racists online who are not posting abusive material because of the rush it gives them. They are doing it because they sincerely believe in their supremacy over others. Such beliefs are confirmed in forums and social groups that act as “echo chambers”. They create “social proof” that the view, for instance, that black people are somehow inferior. That’s due to the social construction of that view within the group. It is classic “in-group” “out-group” psychology in play. Everyone in the group believes that those outside the group are the enemy. It is an evolutionary hangover of a basic survival instinct.
That’s interesting in itself because evolutionary biology suggests that the first humans had dark skin. White skin is effectively a mutation. However, skin is skin. The difference between skin colours is merely due to the action of cells in the lower layers of the skin known as “melanocytes”. These release pigment, called melanin, in varying amounts. White skin has little melanin, whereas black skin has large amounts of melanin. That’s it.
Racist abusers might not be aware of this straightforward biology. However, they will be aware of “evidence” provided in their circles that white people are superior in some way. They will not see the factual evidence that England’s last crucial missed penalty kick in the European Championships was by a white man, Gareth Southgate, now the manager of the national team.
Across the Internet, that point is made. Similarly, if they only looked, racists would find the information that proves beyond any doubt that they are wrong. However, the Internet encourages non-critical research. We tend to believe what the Google algorithm says is important. If it’s top of the search engine, it must be true. Plus, the flawed algorithm is twisted by your own search history. Racist abusers, therefore, tend to only see what confirms their biased view. Google’s algorithm facilitates confirmation bias.
The Internet, therefore, is at the heart of this problem. It enhances and strengthens biases amongst the racists. Plus, the anonymity of the social media world makes it easy for them to perpetrate their deranged views and gain their dopamine fixes.
The psychology of what is happening is all relatively straightforward. The solution is for the Internet giants to do more than pay lip service to the problem (their current mode). Instead, they need to fundamentally change the way they work.
The Internet is currently at the root of much division in society. It is the commercial firms that effectively run the web that can reverse that. The question is, will they? We can only hope that the current and rightful uproar against the racist abuse of footballers will kick the companies into action.