‘Threat Matrix’ study finds football and basketball players ‘suffer horrific online abuse’
(CNN) – Major sports stars are seeing their mental well-being and performance affected by “horrible online abuse” and receiving a “torrent” of hateful messages for showing solidarity with social causes, according to a new study published on Tuesday.
For several years, social media companies have been implementing new protection protocols in an attempt to prevent online abuse of sports stars.
But this report – conducted jointly by FIFPro, the global union of footballers, and the NBPA and WNBPA, the unions representing NBA and WNBA players – suggests that these organizations still have a lot of work to do.
The study covered the period from May to September 2021 and tracked mentions of approximately 80 footballers playing in Europe and South America and 80 basketball players across the NBA and WNBA, with these athletes totaling 200 million followers.
The report found that players received hundreds of “abusive” comments, including racist messages and “threatening or violent language”.
“Gamers across all sports share similar risk profiles and experience horrific online abuse in the workplace, impacting mental wellbeing, lifestyle and performance,” reported the study as one of its conclusions.
Using a technology called “Threat Matrix”, data science firm Signify Group was able to track more than 7.3 million tweets aimed at footballers and basketball players using the “@” function.
Originally used to search for death threats and dangerous behavior, the ‘Threat Matrix’ has seen its library expanded over the past 18 months to include ‘hundreds of discriminatory and abusive terms encompassing racism, homophobia and misogyny’ , as well as emojis.
All tweets flagged by the technology as offensive, threatening or abusive are then individually reviewed by analysts to ensure there are no errors.
In total, FIFPro says the study detected 1,558 abusive messages sent from 1,455 different accounts in the targeted football leagues, NBA and WNBA.
The breakdown includes 648 abusive tweets directed at NBA players, 427 at footballers and 398 at WNBA stars.
Gender and homophobic abuse were the main categories of targeted abuse directed at WNBA players. Four out of five cases of targeted abuse in the WNBA included sexually explicit or harassing messages, while sexism and homophobia accounted for the majority (90%) of targeted abuse detected in women’s soccer.
“Not a Safe Place”
Social media abuse is not a problem exclusive to Twitter. However, Twitter allows public access to its programming, while this kind of study would not have been possible on Instagram and Facebook.
“Social media lacks viable and meaningful safeguards to protect athletes and despite the recent formulation of new regulatory proposals in the UK, EU and US, there is no indication that the required safeguards will be put in place. “, said Dr. William D. Parham, director. of the NBPA’s mental health and wellness program, writes in the study.
Parham says consequences that are “undoubtedly triggered by social media abuse” include social media addiction, anxiety, depression, sadness, pitfalls associated with social comparisons, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy, social withdrawal and isolation, suicide and sleep disturbances.
“When viewed in contexts such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, notoriety, or ‘celebrity’ status, athletes may feel reluctant to admit they feel harmed by abuse on social media,” adds Parham.
“They can choose, alternatively, to act as if everything is fine for them. These self-protection strategies involving “cloaking” and hiding can put athletes at increased risk of falling through the cracks of care and sensitivities and not receiving the support and knowledgeable guidance that could help them better manage their responses to social media abuse.
“We are committed to combating abuse motivated by hate, prejudice or intolerance and, as stated in our Hate Conduct Policy, we do not tolerate abuse or harassment of people on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation,” a Twitter spokesperson told CNN in a statement.
“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’ve recently made progress in giving people greater control to manage their security, we know there’s still work to be done.
According to Twitter, it has not received data from the accounts and tweets included in the report, so it is unable to comment on them specifically, although it welcomes third-party reviews to help improve the user experience on its platform.
Speaking to CNN last year, Thierry Henry said social media was “not a safe place and it’s not a safe environment”, after the former France international earlier announced that he would withdraw from his accounts until social media companies do more to stop online abuse.
Describing the psychological abuse inflicted on the players, Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe told CNN the attacks he received following France’s exit from Euro 2020 ‘hurt him’ and were “difficult” to cash in.
In addition to Twitter, FIFPro says the study also monitored all flashpoints on Instagram and Facebook during this period.
The three players’ unions say only joint industrial action by social media companies, clubs, tournament organisers, lawmakers and law enforcement can effectively tackle the continued online abuse of their star athletes.
“Maybe we’re alone and maybe they’re not interested, maybe they don’t care,” he said. “And maybe it’s up to me and us to work independently to get our message across.”
Among the key findings of the study, unions say there is a clear lack of moderation and regulation; at the time of publication, FIFPro says 87% of detected abuse remains online and visible to the public.
“There is a general tendency in the public sphere to downplay behavior that would not be tolerated in stadiums or other physical venues, even though player testimonials confirm how intimate access to their personalities online can harm their mental health and well-being,” the study said.