‘Threat Matrix’ study reveals football and basketball players ‘are suffering appalling online abuse’

But this report – produced jointly by FIFPro, the global footballers’ union, and the NBPA and WNBPA, the unions representing players in the NBA and WNBA – suggests these organizations still have work to do.

The study covered the period from May to September 2021 and followed the mentions of around 80 soccer players playing in Europe and South America and 80 basketball players in the NBA and WNBA, with these athletes totaling 200 million followers.

The report revealed that players received hundreds of “offensive” comments, including racist posts and “threatening or violent language.”

“Players of all sports share similar risk profiles and experience horrific online workplace abuse that impacts mental well-being, lifestyle and performance,” the study reports as one of its findings.

READ: Jude Bellingham asks if authorities care about racial slurs against black footballers
Athletes who showed their support for progressive social issues received one "torrent"  from abusive messages.

Using technology called the Threat Matrix, data science company Signify Group was able to track more than 7.3 million tweets that addressed soccer and basketball players with the “@” function.

Originally used to search for death threats and dangerous behavior, the Threat Matrix library has expanded over the past 18 months to include “hundreds of discriminatory and abusive terms spanning racism, homophobia and misogyny” as well as emojis.

Any tweets flagged by the technology as offensive, threatening, or abusive are then individually reviewed by analysts to ensure there are no errors.

Overall, FIFPro says the study uncovered 1,558 abusive posts sent from 1,455 different accounts in the affected soccer leagues, NBA and WNBA.

The breakdown includes 648 abusive tweets aimed at players in the NBA, 427 at soccer players, and 398 at WNBA stars.

Sexist and homophobic abuse were the largest categories of targeted abuse against WNBA players. Four out of five instances of targeted abuse in the WNBA involved sexually explicit or harassing messages, while sexism and homophobia accounted for the majority (90%) of targeted abuse identified in women’s football.

“Not a safe place”

Social media abuse is not an exclusive problem for Twitter. However, Twitter allows public access to its program, while this type of study would not have been possible on Instagram and Facebook.

“Social media lacks workable and worthwhile safeguards to protect athletes and despite the recent formulation of new regulatory proposals in the UK, EU and US, there is no evidence that the necessary safeguards are in place,” Dr. William D. Parham, director of the NBPA’s Mental Health and Wellness program, writes in the study.

Consequences that are “undoubtedly triggered by social media abuse,” says Parham, include addiction to social media, anxiety, depression, sadness, pitfalls associated with social comparison, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy, social withdrawal and isolation, suicide and insomnia.

“When athletes are viewed in contexts such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, fame or ‘celebrity’ status, they may feel reluctant to admit that they feel negatively affected by social media abuse,” adds Parham .

“Alternatively, they can choose to pretend like they are okay. These self-protection strategies, which involve ‘cloaking’ and cover-up, can put athletes at greater risk of falling through the cracks of caring and sensitivities and not receiving the support and wise advice that could help them manage their responses to social media abuse to steer better.”

“We are committed to combating abuse motivated by hate, prejudice or intolerance, and as set out in our Hateful Conduct Policy, we tolerate abuse or harassment of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or sexuality Orientation not,” a Twitter spokesman told CNN in a statement

“Today, more than 50% of infringing content is surfaced by our automated systems, further reducing the burden on individuals to report abuse. While we’ve made strides recently to give people more control over their security, we know there’s still work to be done.”

According to Twitter, it has not received the data of the accounts and tweets included in the report, so it cannot specifically comment on them, although it welcomes third-party reviews to improve user experience on its platform.

Speaking to CNN last year, Thierry Henry said social media is “not a safe place or environment” after the former France international previously announced he would be closing his accounts until social media companies did more, to stop online abuse.

Describing the psychological toll players are taking, Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe told CNN the attacks he received after France’s exit from Euro 2020 had “hurt him” and were “heavy ” to suffer.

READ: World Athletics finds that 87 percent of online abuse at the Tokyo Olympics involves female athletes
France star Kylian Mbappe described the psychological effects of the abuse.

“Downplay Behavior”

In addition to Twitter, the study also monitored all hotspots on Instagram and Facebook during this period, according to FIFPro.

The three players’ unions say only collective industrial action by social media companies, clubs, tournament organizers, lawmakers and law enforcement can effectively tackle the ongoing online abuse of their top athletes.

In an interview with CNN published on Tuesday, England and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham questioned whether football authorities really “cared” about racial slurs against black footballers.

“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 spread our message.”

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 abuse detected remains online and visible to the public.

“There is a general tendency for the public to downplay behavior that would not be tolerated in stadiums or other physical venues, even as player testimony confirms how intimate access to their online personas can be detrimental to their mental health and well-being.” , the study says.

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