Online abuse in football: ‘the dark side of the beautiful game’

Analysis of more than two million Twitter posts has revealed the scale of online abuse directed at Premier League footballers. A report by media regulator Ofcom and the Alan Turing Institute found that of the 2.3million tweets sent in the first half of the 2021-22 season, more than 60,000 were abusive.

An average of 362 abusive tweets were sent each day during this period, or “one every four minutes”, Ofcom said. Seven in ten Premier League stars were affected and 12 players in particular faced “a deluge of abuse” – each receiving an average of 15 abusive tweets a day. About one in 12 personal attacks targeted a victim’s protected characteristic, such as their race or gender.

Of the footballers targeted on Twitter, eight of the top ten played for Manchester United at the time. Cristiano Ronaldo received the most abusive tweets (12,520), followed by Harry Maguire (8,954) and Marcus Rashford (2,557). Tottenham striker Harry Kane and Manchester City’s Jack Grealish are also on the list.

The findings “bring to light a darker side of the beautiful game”, said Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom Group Director for Broadcast and Online Content. Online abuse has “no place in sport, or in society at large”.

Player club Number of abusive tweets Percentage of abusive tweets
Cristiano Ronaldo Man Utd 12,520 2.2%
Harry Maguire Man Utd 8,954 14.9%
Marcus Rashford Man Utd 2,557 2.6%
Bruno Fernandes Man Utd 2,464 3%
Harry Kane Tottenham 2,127 5.3%
Fred Man Utd 1,924 7.6%
jesse lingard Man Utd 1,605 3.2%
Jack Greish City of Man 1,538 4.4%
Paul Pogba Man Utd 1,446 3.3%
David de Gea Man Utd 1,394 2.1%

Source: Ofcom/Alan Turing Institute

One year after the shame of the Euro

The study took place the day after the UEFA European Men’s Championship. In last July’s final, England lost on penalties to Italy at Wembley and three players – Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – were racially abused online after missing their shots at the aim.

There has been “a lot of talk about the role anonymous accounts played” in post-Euro abuse, Sky News said. However, Twitter responded and said the UK was “by far” the biggest source country for racist abuse directed at English footballers. The social media company added that 99% of accounts suspended for abuse were not anonymous.

Last year, the footballing world staged a four-day social media blackout to protest abuse, The Mirror said. More than a year on from the Euro shaming, the study has shed light on ‘the true scale of the torrent of abusive messages faced by high-flying stars’.

Solve the problem: what happens next?

Sanjay Bhandari, chairman of football anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out, warned last month that the sport cannot become complacent about online abuse. Although social media companies have managed to fix the problem, Bhandari said the threat is continuously evolving. The abuse is “evolving”, he told the Press Association. With many more audio messages, video messages and other types of content being posted, “new threats” are emerging, “so we can’t be complacent about that.” There will be no “lasting change” unless there are “legal obligations for social media companies”.

Bhandari said the organization was “strongly supportive” of the Online Safety Bill, which is expected to come back to the House of Commons before the fall. The bill is “likely to introduce rules for websites and apps such as social media, search engines and messaging platforms – as well as other services that people use to share content online. online,” the Daily Mail said.

Ofcom will be named regulator of the online safety regime, but Bakhurst said social media companies “don’t need to wait” for new laws to make their sites and apps safer for users. Tech companies need to be “really open about the steps they take to protect users,” he added. “We expect them to design their services with security in mind.” Tackling the problem will require “a team effort”.

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