29 Jun 2024

Euro 2024: UK police receive nearly 600 referrals of online abuse towards England players; 26 now being investigated

The UK Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) has received 571 referrals of online abuse towards England players. The majority of those are racist posts.

As England prepares for their next match against Slovakia in Euro 2024, Channel 4 News can exclusively reveal that since the start of the tournament, the UK Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) has received 571 referrals of online abuse towards England players, with 26 cases now resulting in an investigation. The majority of those are racist posts.

“It’s roughly around sort of 85 percent of most of the grossly offensive posts that we see are racism, followed by homophobia,” said Superintendent Mike Ankers, the Investigations Lead at the UKFPU. Looking at the 12 posts he is now investigating, he said that “at least half of those will be meeting the threshold” for him to take action. “We still get vile use of the N-word. They will be quite prominent. We”ll also get things like monkey emoji, that in itself will be grossly offensive. So we would be taking action.”

Following the first game against Serbia, the UKFPU received 102 referrals of online abuse, with 12 now being investigated. 292 social media posts were referred after the Denmark game, with three meeting the threshold for police to investigate. And after the last England group match against Slovenia, 177 posts were referred, with 11 being investigated currently.

Regarding what action the police will take, Ankers said: “We try to take a proportionate sort of approach. There’s education, so lower level, first time offenders, we would definitely look to try and go through that education programme. What we did see in 2022, which followed on from the 2021 missed penalties of the three black players, was a legislation change, which meant that online hate abuse became a section one offence which enables us to apply for a banning order. A banning order enables us to remove probably the one thing that they enjoy, which is football, for up to ten years, which means that they can’t travel, they can’t go and watch games.”

After England lost to Italy at the last Euros final at Wembley in July 2021, a stream of racist abuse online was directed at the three players who missed penalties for England: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. 11 people were arrested.

That led to calls for the police and social media companies to do more. Meta, the company behind Facebook, Instagram and Threads, said that they have clear rules against hate speech and do not tolerate it on their apps. In a statement they said: “since 2016, we’ve invested more than $20 billion into safety and security and quadrupled the size of our global team working in this area to around 40,000 people. This includes 15,000 content reviewers who review content across Facebook, Instagram and Threads.”

The new Online Safety Bill will also mean that the regulator Ofcom can hold social media platforms to account for online abuse. But Tony Burnett, CEO of anti-racism in football campaign group Kick It Out, said there was still more to be done.

“This season we’ve seen a higher number of discrimination complaints than than ever, a record number. And the increase in particular is coming from social media. I’m not saying the police aren’t doing anything. I’m not saying the social media organisations are doing nothing. But the experience of players, and our experience working in this field, is that the incidents are still going up. And while that’s the case, we can’t be complacent and say that enough is happening to stop it because it clearly isn’t.”

In response, Mike Ankers said, “I absolutely understand why people would say that they (social media companies) haven’t done enough. But in my experience, I’ve been really enthused by the work and the collaborative approach in which the companies have worked with the police, certainly at this point. So I think there’s encouraging signs there.”

The concern that both Burnett and the police share is that the longer England go in the tournament, the higher the stakes, and they fear that if the team were to lose, certain players would be blamed and possibly abused.

“I’m really hoping that we win the tournament, in which case we might be having a very different conversation. If the unfortunate event occurs that we fail, whichever player is involved, I just really hope the social media organisations have learned from that experience (of Euro 2021), have put the preventative measures in place, and the UKFPU is ready to prosecute anyone that does perpetrate that kind of abuse again.”

In Germany itself, the UKFPU has said that the majority of the English supporters have behaved extremely well, with tens of thousands travelling there since the start of the tournament on June 14.

There was some trouble ahead of England’s first match against Serbia on June 16 in Gelsenkirchen. The UKFPU said that six England fans have been issued with football banning orders related to that disorder. Three of those supporters are now unable to attend domestic and England internationals for three years; the other three are banned for five years.The UKFPU said they are still investigating others believed to be involved.

There had been concern ahead of the tournament because of a rise in football disorder. According to Home Office figures, arrests at matches in England and Wales reached a nine-year high during the 2022-23 season, with 2,264 football-related arrests. Figures for the season just gone are not yet available.