Around 68% of Premier League footballers experienced abuse on Twitter in the first half of last season, according to a report from Ofcom.
The regulator has teamed up with the Alan Turing Institute – Britain’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence – to analyze more than 2.3 million tweets sent to high-profile gamers over the past five first months of the 2021-22 campaign and found nearly 60,000 were offensive.
It revealed that 418 of the 618 gamers analyzed had received at least one abusive tweet, with 8% of the abuse targeting a protected characteristic, such as their race or gender.
About half of the abusive messages targeted 12 specific players, who received an average of 15 abusive tweets each day.
Manchester United players accounted for eight of the 10 most abused players, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire receiving the most anti-social messages.
The study used new technology that can decipher whether tweets are abusive, while 3,000 random tweets were also manually reviewed. Of those 3,000 tweets, more than half were positive, 27% were neutral, 12.5% were critical, and 3.5% were abusive.
Twitter was chosen because of its popularity with gamers, its history of abuse, and because it makes data available for research.
However, the application programming interface (API) does not take into account the guarantees put in place.
Ofcom is preparing to regulate tech companies under new online safety laws, which will introduce rules for sites, apps, search engines and messaging platforms aimed at protecting users.
“These findings highlight a darker side to 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, and addressing it requires a team effort.
“Social media companies don’t have to wait for new laws to make their sites and apps safer for users. When we become the regulator of online safety, tech companies will need to be very open about the steps they take to protect users. We expect them to design their services with security in mind.
“Fans can also play a positive role in protecting the game they love. Our research shows that the vast majority of fans online behave responsibly, and as the new season kicks off, we’re asking them to report any unacceptable and abusive messages every time they see them.
Twitter, which says it did not receive any of the abusive tweets included in the report, is committed to rooting out abuse and recently conducted research using its own technology which found 38,000 abusive tweets were sent last season . He also deleted more than 38,000 abusive tweets.
The social media company has received less than 1,000 reports of abusive tweets from its partner and is now focused on reducing the burden on victims by identifying abuse itself using its own technology and third-party security tools.
Twitter is also participating in focus groups with football partners to work on ways to reduce abuse.
A Twitter spokesperson said: “We are committed to combating abuse and, as stated in our hateful conduct policy, we do not tolerate abuse or harassment of people on the basis of race, race, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.
“As the report acknowledges, this type of research is only possible because our public API is open and accessible to everyone. However, our publicly available API does not take into account the range of protections we have in place, so this does not fully reflect the user experience.
“We have not received the accounts, tweets or dataset included in this report, so we are unable to comment on them specifically.
“Today, more than 50% of non-compliant content is flagged by our automated systems, further reducing the burden on individuals to report abuse.
“While we have recently made progress in giving people greater control to manage their security, we know there is still work to be done. This is a company-wide priority as our product, policy, and engineering teams continue to work at scale and pace to create a healthier Twitter.
Ofcom hosted an event at the National Football Museum in Manchester to discuss the issue, with Manchester United women’s player Aoife Mannion, Gary Lineker and Kick It Out chairman Sanjay Bhandari among the speakers.
Mannion opened up about his experiences of abuse on Twitter, but said female gamers in particular had to “face the devil” being on social media.
“It allows players to connect with fans and supporters, especially for women’s football because it’s not as established,” she said.
“It’s a deal with the devil. We need it because we need the exposure and the exposure we get from it, we don’t need the abuse.
Bhandari said the problem was on an “industrial scale” and online was like “the Wild West”.
He said: “This is an industrial-scale problem and one that requires industrial-scale solutions. It’s very industrial, we have burner accounts created and deleted after a tweet. The government must give Ofcom the tools and resources to regulate properly.
“It’s the Wild West and it has to stop being the Wild West.”