Premier League star Wilfried Zaha admits he’s “scared” to open Instagram due to the number of racist messages he receives.
Earlier this month, a 12-year-old boy was arrested in connection with racist threats made to the Crystal Palace forward via Instagram’s direct message service, including an accompanying image of the Ku Klux Klan.
Zaha says he’s been forced to remove Twitter from his phone as the torrent of racist abuse becomes unbearable.
“For Black footballers for instance, being on Instagram is not even fun for us anymore,” Zaha told CNN’s Darren Lewis. “You’re not enjoying your profile because I’m scared to even look up my direct messages anymore. It could be filled with anything.
“I don’t even have Twitter on my phone anymore because it’s almost certain that you’re going to get some sort of abuse, especially after games and stuff, because it happens so freely.
“That same 12-year-old boy contacted like three other players, racially abused three other players as well, in my team. So it’s like, this is not OK. Even after I reported the abuse from the 12-year-old, I think I reported 50 accounts I got racially abused from, after the stuff that I got before.”
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has come in for criticism for not protecting Black footballers from the racist abuse they receive on their platform.
Last week, Facebook and Instagram announced they would each be setting up a team to fight racism on their platforms and assess whether there is racial bias in their algorithms.
“Racism is not tolerated on Facebook and Instagram,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNN. “When we find content that breaks our guidelines we will remove it and we will ban those who repeatedly break the rules.
“We take this issue seriously and invest billions of dollars in people and technology to help remove harmful content at scale. Last month, we also introduced a new safety feature that allows public figures to prevent people they do not know from sending them a message.”
Facebook told CNN that it is working closely with clubs, players and anti-racism organizations such as Kick It Out to investigate racist abuse and take appropriate actions, while Twitter says it has “suspended nearly 300 accounts and taken action on nearly 6,000 examples of abuse and hateful content.”
However, given the ease with which anonymous accounts can send him racist abuse, Zaha questions how effective these strategies are.
“What happens after that account gets blocked?” he says. “Then they just make a new account straight after. I’ve tried to block people so many times and I’ve looked on Instagram for the option to block them for racial abuse, but there isn’t that option there.
“That doesn’t come up, it has harassment [and] different stuff, but there’s no racial abuse option that comes up. I feel like with everything that we do in life, with everything we register to, we have to give some sort of ID. So why is it not the same with Instagram, why is it not the same with Twitter?
“I feel like enough is enough and I’m among a load of people who have had racial abuse and I’ve had racial abuse all my life. But it’s a thing where for right now, I’ve got a platform where I feel like if I can make a change, I’ll try.”
Facebook says requiring users to provide ID could lead to exclusion for disadvantaged social groups which do not have easy access to official documentation, while the ID standard and verification processes differ greatly from country to country. Twitter didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
‘Where has that hate even come from?’
Zaha has been dealing with these messages throughout his career.
Aside from brief spells at Manchester United and Cardiff City, the 27-year-old has spent his entire career at boyhood club Crystal Palace. On the international stage, Zaha initially played for England before switching to play for the Ivory Coast, his country of birth.
In his early days playing for Crystal Palace, he recalls one instance of racist abuse prior to a match against Manchester United in which the perpetrator wished for him to break his legs and told him to “go back to the slums of Croydon.”
With social media’s growth over the last decade, Zaha says these incidents have only become more prevalent and he feels these companies place the burden of responsibility for dealing with racist abuse on the shoulders of Black footballers, rather than on the culprits or themselves.
“These people saying these things around their kids, this is the result and then we just have to deal with it,” he says. “Why should I have to block comments? Why should I have to change up my life so that I don’t get affected by the things these people are saying?
“Why are they not prosecuted for what they’re saying to us? Why do we have all these tabs? How can I go through 15 minutes just blocking racist words I don’t want to see on my account? Why not get through to the person who’s saying these things to us?
“These platforms have to be held accountable for these things because the statements ain’t good enough. They’re not good enough.”
Speaking to CNN in 2018, former professional footballer Marvin Sordell opened up about the battle with depression he faced throughout his career.
While the conversation around mental health among footballers has undoubtedly improved in recent years, Zaha believes there is still some way to go before people truly understand the impact that online abuse can have.
“People think you are a footballer, you get this much money, you do this, you get that,” he says. “But it comes at a price. Like the sacrifice of … it’s like you’re not seen as a human, like you have no privacy, people feel like they can say whatever they like to you. It’s ridiculous.
“People never understand it, people just think: ‘Look at the life you have, you should just rise above it.’ It’s not spoken about enough but the depression side of it is unbelievable.
“A friend of mine who I used to play with, Marvin Sordell, he was talking about how he nearly committed suicide because of it. Just all the hate and all the abuse. It’s just like, do you not see what is doing to people? But still no action.”
Zaha says he has hired a life coach to help him cope with his emotions and the mental toll the racist abuse has taken.
“There’s so much stuff you deal with in your life already and then you go on your Instagram, you go on your Twitter and you’re being abused at the same time,” he says.
“So obviously it gets a bit much at times and I feel like that’s what I needed because I’m 27. When I was younger and I used to see all these things and I used to get abuse, I used to argue on my platform with people when I was young and just naive.
“Then their response would be: ‘Oh yeah, I managed to make Wilfried Zaha bite’ or ‘I managed to get him to speak to me.’ We all go through things in our life and I felt like that’s what I needed, I just needed someone to help, to vent these things to and just help me with my emotions, really.”
CNN spoke to Zaha on July 24, but abuse of Black footballers on social media has continued this week.
On Monday, British police confirmed they had arrested a 15-year-old male on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offense after Luton Town defender Peter Kioso was racially abused while on Instagram live.
For Zaha, the ages of these recent perpetrators are one of the biggest causes for concern.
“It’s sad. It’s sad, really, because how is a 12-year-old even thinking about that?” he says. “Where has that hate even come from? From the age of 12? It doesn’t make sense.
“I understand he’s a 12-year-old, it’s sad that it’s a 12-year-old but you have to be held accountable for the things that you say, too. [The] stuff that you said to me, ain’t just ‘you Black this,’ this is Ku Klux Klan. I didn’t even know about that stuff at the age of 12.”