Thierry Henry has accused social media companies of making money from hate and said he has no plans to end his boycott of the industry because platforms are “not really trying” to tackle online abuse.
The former Arsenal star and World Cup winner announced a social media boycott in March in protest at the platforms’ failure to tackle racist abuse, triggering a wave of similar moves that culminated in a weekend-long blackout by football and other sports in the UK on 30 April.
Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Henry said the business model of social media companies was a barrier to action. “When you find that they generate money through hate, it is very difficult when your medicine is your poison.” He added: “Being genuine and being nice doesn’t generate money.”
Henry, 44, currently an assistant coach for the Belgian national team, said previous attempts to talk to social media firms had met with silence before his boycott. “I tried to reach [out] at times. They didn’t want to talk, but when the boycott happened they wanted to talk to me. I was like: ‘I don’t know what we need to talk about now’.”
Henry said social media companies had not done enough since launching his boycott, which he said he would end once platforms started tackling racism and bullying properly. Speaking at a press conference after his Web Summit appearance, Henry said there had been no action. “They are not really trying to change anything about it.”
Asked if he would return to social media, he said: “I am OK without it. I sleep well.”
Henry also welcomed Monday’s report in the Times that online trolls could face a two-year jail sentence for posting content or sending messages that caused psychological harm. The criminal clauses would be included in the online safety bill, which Boris Johnson has promised to fast-track through parliament.
Asked if he would support two-year sentences, Henry said: “Yes I would. I think that’s a big and massive start.” He said people shouting abuse in the street would be arrested or told to stop by police, but online “it seems you can do whatever you want”.
Referring to the speed at which videos are removed from sites for breaching copyright, Henry added that social media companies would act if something had an “impact on their pockets”.
Speaking in support of Puma’s Game of Our Lives anti-online hate initiative, he also expressed scepticism that Instagram would deal with complaints by Wilfried Zaha, the Crystal Palace forward, over abuse he received after his team defeated Manchester City at the weekend. Zaha has been told by Instagram to report each instance of abuse after the game. Henry said: “You need to report it for each [abusive] message – if they do answer.”
A spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said: “No one should have to experience racist abuse anywhere, and we don’t want it on our platforms. We remove hateful content as soon as we find it and respond quickly to valid legal requests to help with police investigations.” It is also understood that Instagram has banned all the accounts that sent abuse to Zaha.
Nick Clegg, the vice-president of global affairs at Meta, used his Web Summit appearance to defend the business against renewed criticism from the whistleblower Frances Haugen, who spoke in Lisbon on Monday. Clegg denied Haugen’s claims that Facebook deliberately “spoonfeeds” hateful content to keep them on the platform. Clegg said advertisers, who account for most of Meta’s $86bn (£63bn) annual revenues, did not want their ads placed next to extreme content. “It misreads the commercial self-interest of Meta,” he said.