Q&A: How to tackle hate speech during a summer of sport

We Are Social with three steps to tackle online hate

The summer of sports is upon us, and while this is certainly cause for excitement it’s also cause for concern. Considering the usual spike in hate speech around major sporting events, the world’s largest socially-led creative agency, We Are Social, have published their Braving the Backlash report, exploring how sports brands can best tackle rising online hate.

To find out how brands can protect athletes around the UEFA Euro, Olympics and Paralympics, MediaCat’s Content and Social Media Editor, Svilena Keane, spoke to Daniel Parker, Group Editorial Director at We Are Social. Together, they discussed the findings of the report, tangible steps brands can take to tackle online hate, and the mistakes they should avoid.

Hi Dan. What were the key findings of the 2024 Braving the Backlash report and what can we expect to see this summer?

Daniel Parker

It’s strange because I’m really proud of the report, but also a little upset that our hypothesis was backed up by the data that we found. We built this report in collaboration with our Cultural Insights team and our Research Insights team and, as anyone might, we expected spikes of online hate and discrimination to heighten during moments of major sporting events. The research backed this up. We saw from the data how there are significant spikes around things like racism and racial discrimination when it came to major footballing tournaments. An example of this is the last Euros, when England had three Black players who missed a penalty, and the racist abuse they suffered in the media was horrific.

And to be honest, we saw this even before the start of the 2024 Euros with the Saka scapegoating. You also see how users are emboldened to leave more racist comments under posts because platforms and brands currently aren’t doing enough to counter that. And then when you look at the other big topic we covered in the report — discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexuality — we’re also seeing that polarization happen around major international sporting events like the Olympics and the Paralympics.

We worked closely with industry-leading experts to build the report and one of these experts, Troy Townsend, used this word that has stuck with me; he said people have got bored. Brands have got bored of talking about it and defending athletes against the backlash.

After that horrific scenario that I just talked through, and then the Black Lives Matter movement and players taking the knee as well, there was a momentum there. But since then, there’s this boredom.

So the findings didn’t contradict what we feared would be the case in terms of both the data and the lack of action from brands as well.

Many brands choose to remain quiet out of fear that they’re going to say or do the wrong thing. Do you think this is a mistake? Do brands have a duty to speak up?

In short, yes. Not only do they have a duty to speak up, but they also have a duty of care to the athletes and the communities. One thing I want to pull out from the report is the framework that Liz Ward, who’s one of the experts that we spoke to, introduced to me. What she said was that there’s this sliding scale of accountability; you’ve got informed versus consulted versus responsible versus accountable, and that is the case across all projects.

Now, when athletes are often discriminated against but included in campaigns, they are often just informed. They’re told they’re going to feature in the campaign. What we need to start doing is moving athletes from informed to consulted, because when things go wrong, it’s often the athletes that are ultimately held accountable. It’s them that face the backlash. Brands need to start working with the players on the content they’re producing, but also making sure how they’ll then defend them, should they receive backlash, in a way that they’re comfortable with.  

The first job a brand should be doing is checking the athlete’s okay, and then working with them to co-create responses or ways of tackling that hate alongside them. But that’s in the moment, there’s a lot of things that brands can do in advance.

Preparation is such a massive part of that. Abby Hawker, another expert we spoke to, said that we need to change the mindset within brands and institutions, so that they can anticipate a rise in online hate and make sure they have already plotted out the scenarios and suggested responses. So, when the moment comes, it’s not scramble mode. Going back to silence and generic statements, when we first published Bracing the Backlash in 2018, the world was really different. Now, Gen Z and Gen Alpha will call brands out much more for silence and generic statements. We have gone way past the point where brands can stay silent or just put out a statement that doesn’t tackle the issue in the hope that it goes away.

One of the things that you mentioned before in terms of being scared, I think you’re right. I think bravery is needed, and brands are so terrified of doing the wrong thing that they just completely don’t do the right thing anymore. That is a massive problem. I want to give an example of this, where L’Oréal hired and fired Munroe Bergdorf. The way that that was handled meant that the generations I mentioned before repeatedly called out on L’Oréal for the way they handled the sacking of Bergdorf after she shared her views on racism on social media, and then they stayed silent.

Two and a half years later L’Oréal put a post up talking about solidarity with the Black community, after the murder of George Floyd; but the audience remembered. So they were actually accused of racial hypocrisy, and it ultimately ended up that they then re-hired Bergdorf. It was a bit of a mess, but that is a great example of the audience not forgetting, and that’s one of the critical reasons why silence or statements aren’t enough.

What are some tangible steps brands can take right now to prepare for and tackle online hate speech during the summer sporting events?

What we created was a three-step program that’s specific to both the Euros and the Paris Games, but then could also be flexed to fit other issues beyond this summer as well.

Preparation is the first step. Every brand or institution should create an anti-hate policy and pin it to their social channel, ahead of when they expect a spike of online hate to happen and then back it up with what we’ve called the three Rs model: remain, reply, and report.

  • REMAIN: there are comments that are negative about an athlete or a brand, but they don’t contravene your anti-hate policy, they should be kept up and not censored.
  • REPLY: there are posts bordering on hateful, and there is an opportunity to both educate the user and show solidarity with the person and community affected, so they can be replied to.
  • REPORT: where if the platform moderation hasn’t kicked in, and it definitely breaches anti-hate policy, that post needs to be removed and reported to the platform. A brand should have a clear understanding of what constitutes a post that would go into those three buckets so that when the moment happens, they’re not scrambling to go through multiple stakeholders.

The second step is collaboration. I mentioned before how important co-creation is; it is critical that we work alongside the athletes and communities and that they are consulted before the campaign goes out. Brands should also make sure that athletes know and are comfortable with how they plan to tackle hateful comments. So, it’s that collaboration that is a change from before, where before brands could put a statement out by themselves.

The third step of the process can be flexed to different issues. If you take Euro 2024 as an example, after preparation and collaboration, we talk about separation. By separation, we mean when brands or institutions spot when social media platforms are not doing enough when they see hate online. What I really want to call out here is the example I mentioned before of the three Black players missing a penalty against Italy in the last Euro final.

The platforms did not act when there were monkey emojis that were posted underneath posts. They did not see that emoji as breaching a platform’s moderation policy. What we’re calling on brands to do, if they see a platform not taking a strong enough stance is take a firmer stance; they can call that out and lead the charge because ultimately, brands and their ad spend are a strong way in which platforms generate a lot of their revenue.

When you look at a tournament like Euro 2024, the games are three a day. They come so fast that the news cycle moves on. You’ve got a two-and-a-half-hour window between one game and the next and if there’s a racist incident that happens and online hate really spikes and the platform cannot act quickly enough, it falls on the brand to lead the change there. So that’s an example of that third step of the process being bespoke for issues of sexuality and gender identity.

Thinking about the Olympics in particular, there’s a little bit more nuance; it goes preparation, collaboration, and then deliberation. It’s deliberation because those issues are so highly politically charged, especially around gender identity, that what may be your brand values may actually contradict your own country, where your HQ is, and your country’s political stance. Therefore, having statements or a social media stance, might not be the smart thing for a brand to do.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything. It doesn’t mean you go silent. What it does mean is that you take a step back and put your investment and support into the communities on a grassroots level. There are honestly horrific stats that are featured in the report: 78% of LGBTQIA+ athletes are put off from participating in sport because of the slurs they receive when they participate, which is absolutely scandalous.

But what happens there is, if you’ve got a brand that maybe can’t say something on social because of the politically charged nature of that, what they can do is lead a grassroots change for participation and change the future generations.

So, that third process will change depending on the event or the brand in question. And that’s something where we can work with brands in the future to make sure that a third step is really bespoke.

Finally, could you share some common mistakes brands make and how they can avoid them?

A common mistake is when there’s just that silence which is deafening, and it comes across as complicity in the issue; which is something that is called out by a Gen Z or Gen Alpha audience. It’s a more discerning and socially native audience. I would say a massive mistake is thinking that you can do what a lot of brands and institutions have been doing the last six years and continue on the same status quo and the same line of handling these issues.

The second thing is a bit of a contradiction in terms of when we published the report ahead of the summer of sport but what we want to see is a longer-term commitment, because it’s easier to show support to marginalised communities in campaigns when the world is watching. It’s harder to defend those communities and athletes when we predict the backlash is going to come and spike, like the major events.

It’s harder still to stand by those communities longer-term around sensitive issues when the world stops watching. And it’s that longer-term support that’s going to drive a deeper connection between what your brand does and those communities when you next spotlight them in a campaign.

This interview has been shortened for length.

Featured image: We Are Social

Svilena Keane, Content & Social Editor at MediaCat Magazine

Svilena is the Content & Social Media Editor at MediaCat Magazine. She has a joint bachelor’s degree from Royal Holloway University, where she studied Comparative Literature and Art History. During her time at Royal Holloway, she was also the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper The Founder. Since then, she has worked at a number of digital and print publications in Bulgaria and the UK, covering a wide range of topics including arts, culture, business and politics. She is also the founder of the online blog Sip of Culture and a self-published poet.

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