In a soccer game in Liverpool’s Goodison Park in 1988, player John Barnes stepped away from his position and used the back of his heel to kick away a banana that had been thrown toward him. Captured in an iconic photo, the moment encapsulated the racial abuse that Black soccer players then faced in the U.K.
More than 30 years later, the medium has changed, yet the racism persists: After England lost to Italy this July in the final of the UEFA European Championship, Black players for the British side faced an onslaught of bananas. Instead of physical fruit, these were emojis slung at their social media profiles, along with monkeys and other imagery. “The impact was as deep and as meaningful as when it was actual bananas,” says Simone Pound, director of equality, diversity, and inclusion for the U.K.’s Professional Footballers’ Association.
Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. faced wide criticism for taking too long to screen out the wave of racist abuse during this summer’s European championship. The moment highlighted a long-standing issue: Despite spending years developing algorithms to analyze harmful language, social media companies often don’t have effective strategies for stopping the spread of hate speech, misinformation, and other problematic content on their platforms.
Emojis have emerged as a stumbling block. When Apple Inc. introduced emojis with different skin tones in 2015, the tech giant came under criticism for enabling racist commentary. A year later Indonesia’s government drew complaints after it demanded social networks remove LGBTQ-related emojis. Some emojis, including the one depicting a bag of money, have been linked to antisemitism. Black soccer players have been frequently targeted: The Professional Footballers’ Association and data science company Signify conducted a study last year of racially abusive tweets directed at players and found that 29% included some form of emoji.
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