Footballers subject to 48% increase in online abuse according to PFA research

Footballers in the Premier League, Women's Super League (WSL) and English Football League (EFL) were subjected to a 48% increase in unmoderated racist online abuse during the second half of the 2020-21 season, according to research funded by the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA).

A detailed survey carried out on behalf of the PFA by Signify, an ethical data science company, also found that 50% of abusive accounts came from the United Kingdom; India and South-East Asia both generated 5%, with 4% from accounts in the United States.

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Meanwhile, a peak in anti-gay abuse was recorded in December 2020, which corresponded with campaigns against homophobia such as Rainbow Laces.

In May, the PFA joined a football-wide social media boycott to draw further attention to online abuse. However, despite an initial drop in offending posts, Signify's data shows that racist abuse of players peaked during that same month, with almost twice as many incidents as the previous high in February.

The PFA reported 1,781 offensive tweets from 1,674 accounts during the second half of last season, but the research has shown that only 56% of those posts have been removed. PFA chief executive Maheta Molango said the survey is proof that social media platforms must do more to deal with the problem.

"The time has come to move from analysis to action," Molango said. "The PFA's work with Signify clearly shows that the technology exists to identify abuse at scale and the people behind offensive accounts.

"Having access to this data means that real-world consequences can be pursued for online abuse. If the players' union can do this, so can the tech giants."

Signify monitored more than six million social media posts on Twitter, looking at player accounts from the Premier League, Women's Super League and English Football League. And the machine-learning AI systems found more than three-quarters of the 359 accounts sending explicitly racist abuse to players were still on the platform as of July 2021.

The report also found players across the leagues faced anti-gay, ableist and sexist abuse. Anti-gay abuse was included in 33% of abusive posts.

"Social media companies are huge businesses with the best tech people," Troy Deeney, Watford captain and PFA Players' Board representative said. "If they wanted to find solutions to online abuse, they could.

"This report shows they are choosing not to. When is enough, enough? Now we know that abusive accounts and their affiliation to a club can be identified, more must be done to hold these people accountable."

Where tweets have passed a clear criminal threshold, the PFA have passed over information to law enforcement. More than 100 posts containing direct, discriminatory abuse and serious threats were identified in each month of the 2020/21 season.

The scourge of online abuse continued during Euro 2020, with England players Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka all being targeted with racist abuse on Twitter and Instagram after missing spot-kicks during the penalty shootout defeat against Italy in the tournament final at Wembley last month.

The Signify survey noted that 314 posts directed at England players crossed the threshold of being discriminatory or threatening.