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Football is a magnet for online abuse, but it is also the perfect platform to confront it

As Euro 2024 draws to a close, thoughts turn to how the final match ended. One of the lasting memories from the Euro 2020 final was the vile racist abuse England’s black players endured after losing to Italy on penalties.

Although media outlets have previously reported on online hate and abuse in sports, it is only now that the issue has come to public attention and has been met with widespread condemnation and detailed press coverage.

Now police, sports organisations and private organisations tasked with blocking offensive content are using this year’s European Championships to highlight legal and technological improvements that can be implemented to help protect players this time around.

The truth is, however, that the abuse suffered by players during high-profile matches is just the tip of the iceberg of a widespread culture of online abuse that permeates football at all levels and has serious consequences that go beyond the immediate well-being of the players who are subjected to abuse.

Fans are often portrayed in media and research as perpetrators, but they are also the group most affected by online abuse.

I work with a group of researchers on the Tacking Online Hate in Football and United Against Online Abuse projects, which aim to investigate the problem of online abuse more broadly in football and, as part of the latter project, in other sports as well.

We look at how hate speech at international football tournaments has changed over the years. We have just finished analysing data from eight European Championships (men’s and women’s) since 2008.

Football has always had a problem with hate speech, long before social media came along. Social media has simply made it easier to commit and more visible to the public and its victims.

The importance of gaming, both on an individual level where we invest much of our identity and emotions, and on a societal level where gaming is often used as a political tool to build a sense of national pride, creates the perfect environment for a culture of online abuse to thrive.

International football tournaments act as flashpoints because it is where different countries (and cultures) clash in an extremely competitive environment.

Fans often see their country’s performance in the tournament as a symbol of wider domestic issues such as immigration.

See, for example, a recent opinion poll in Germany on the ethnic diversity of the national team and the controversy it has caused at a time when the far right is on the rise in Germany.

Fight against discrimination

We used machine learning to detect various instances of hate speech such as racism, homophobia, disability discrimination, and sexism in approximately 50 million tweets (around 22 million of them in English) about the tournaments.

Our preliminary results indicate that the overall percentage of tweets containing some form of offensive or vulgar language remained at around 1% during the period studied.

What is worrying is that social media usage, especially in sports, has skyrocketed over the last decade. So that 1% now represents a huge amount of toxic content.

In addition to descriptive findings, our project also conducted extensive interviews with gamers at all levels. Gamers are exposed to many online harms beyond online abuse, including doxing (revealing someone’s online address), bribery, online harassment, and so on.

Gamers who publicly oppose discrimination are particularly vulnerable to online abuse. As you might expect, it affects them on both a professional and personal level.

When Marcus Rashford is the victim of racist attacks, every black fan who sees this tweet will also become a victim of racism.

However, it is striking to see how normalised and accepted it has become. Players receive social media training, but it rarely covers how to deal with abuse. Most clubs are under-resourced and club staff lack specialist knowledge of online abuse, its effects and how to respond.

It’s important to understand that the problem extends far beyond players. We also interviewed sports administrators, journalists, officials, managers, and social media professionals — and surveyed fans extensively on the issue.

Fans are often portrayed in media and research as perpetrators, but they are also the group most affected by online abuse.

When Marcus Rashford is racially abused, every black fan who sees that tweet is also a victim of racism. Of the fans we surveyed, 83% had experienced online abuse directly.

Moreover, our preliminary findings suggest that the more frequent the experience of abuse, the more likely a fan is to become a perpetrator of abuse. Football fanaticism becomes a vicious cycle of tribalism and hatred.

Our research shows that, in addition to the cumulative impact on individual well-being, online abuse has broader and sometimes unexpected consequences.

For example, our interviews with football journalists suggest that a culture of abuse leads to self-censorship of work. Toxic elements of fandom can be used to silence journalists and other critics who hold opposing views.

There is no magic solution, and it is unlikely that this abuse will ever be completely eradicated. The private sector has exploited the problem by developing products that detect online abuse and protect athletes’ social media accounts. These services are increasingly being used by professional clubs. While this may protect elite athletes, it only masks the complexity of the problem.

Legislation is needed to shift the burden of responsibility to social media platforms. Policies and laws are needed to encourage sports and civic organizations to protect employees and members from online abuse.

Education is also important here. It’s an easy word to throw around in these discussions, but we need to think more about who we’re targeting with limited educational resources and what those educational resources should look like.

Football is a magnet for online abuse. However, because of the way it captures the public imagination, it also provides a great opportunity to articulate, educate and challenge the wider issue of online abuse.

  • Gary Sinclair is Associate Professor of Marketing at Dublin City University