Football players call for change as rampant online racist abuse turns to AI for protection

Football players call for change as rampant online racist abuse turns to AI for protection

LONDON (AP) Missed penalties in a major international soccer final were bad enough for three black England players. Being subjected to a torrent of racial abuse on social media later it made things even worse.

Monkey emoji. Being told to go home. The N word

The even sadder part? Everyone knew it was coming.

It’s stupid, said Nedum Onuoha, a retired black player who has been in the top divisions of English and US soccer for 16 years. But are we surprised?

It is the ultimate form of racism: tech-fueled, visual, permanently intrusive, and 24/7, an eerie reminder of 80s-style monkey chants and banana-throwing in the age of social media.

And it’s spiraling out of control on platforms where anonymity is the golden ticket for racists.

Every time that happens, it pushes you back and brings you down, Onuoha told the Associated Press. Just when you think everything is fine, it’s a reminder that it’s not. It’s a reminder of how some people really see you.

Racism is the predominant form of social media abuse reported to Kick It Out, an anti-discrimination campaigner in football, according to statistics compiled in the last three seasons in English football.

A report last year by FIFA, world football’s governing body, showed that more than 50% of players competing in two international tournaments in 2021, the Africa Cup of Nations and the European Championship, received some form of discriminatory abuse in over 400,000 posts on social media. More than a third were of a racist nature.

The problem is, there’s almost no accountability and it’s so easy. He takes out his phone, finds the handle of the player you want to abuse and sends a racist message.

Former Premier League striker Mark Bright, who is black and suffered regular racial abuse in stadiums in the 1980swas exchanging messages with friends on a WhatsApp group when those three black England players Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho missed penalties in a shootout defeat to Italy in the 2020 European Championship final.

We all texted and said, Oh God, here we are. Because we know what’s around the corner, Bright told the AP. This is what we expected and this is where, again, you say What can be done about it?

In general, the abuse hasn’t stopped black players from using social media. It is an essential tool for marketing, leading to the paradox that footballers are using the very platforms on which they are being abused.

Kylian Mbappe, who has 104 million Instagram followers and over 12 million Twitter followers, was racially abused alongside black teammate Kingsley Coman after their France national side lost in the 2022 World Cup Final to Argentina.

Vincius Jnior, Real Madrid wingerrepeatedly the target of racist insults, he is followed by 38 million people on Instagram and almost 7 million on Twitter.

Saka, who has more than 1 million Twitter followers, remains on social media despite abuse following England’s Euro 2020 defeat and more just a few weeks ago, when a message posted on Twitter showed the Arsenal winger with his face made to look like a monkey, alongside the words: This clown cost us the championship. Minutes before the message, Saka had missed a penalty in an important Premier League match.

With social media continuing to fuel the abuse, players and teams are devising ways to raise awareness and reduce their exposure to offending users.

GoBubble is a company that configures AI software to act as a filter to prevent discriminatory comments from being seen by a social media user. He has clients from the Premier League up to the fourth tier of English football, across Europe and in Australia.

Yes, technology caused the problem, GoBubble founder Henry Platten told the AP, but technology can actually fix the problem, and that’s what we’re seeing as one of those pieces of the puzzle.

The company’s AI technology is linked to player accounts and scans words, images and other types of toxic and potentially harmful messages that can be filtered using a traffic light system.

It’s not about censorship, about sportwashing, about creating that fuzzy world, Platten said. It’s about protection, not just for gamers and their families, but for the wider fan community as well.

Platten said some players who approached him had experienced mental health issues that affected their performances. Indeed, in January, Liverpool became the first Premier League club to hire a mental health counselor tasked with protecting young players from online trolling.

Government bodies are also reacting. During last years World Cup in Qatar, FIFA and the players union FIFPRO had a dedicated in-tournament moderation service that prevented players and their followers from seeing racist and other forms of hate speech online . This service will be offered for the next Women’s World Cup.

Football authorities in England, including the Premier League, have conducted a four-day social media boycott in 2021 on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in a protest against racist abuse. It ended up being adopted by many other sports in England and by FIFA and UEFA, the governing body of European football.

However, the abuse continues on the platforms, which have been accused of being too slow to block racist posts, remove offender accounts and improve their verification process to ensure users provide accurate identifying information and cannot register with a new account if banned.

It has to be regulated, you have to be accountable, Bright said. Everyone has been complaining about this for a long time now. Some players have set up meetups with these social media companies. It seems to me that they are not serious enough about it.

So is there an appetite for change within the big social media platforms?

No one should be racially abused and we don’t want that on our apps, said Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, in a statement to the AP. We take action whenever we find it, and have launched several ways to help protect people from having to see it in the first place.

This includes Hidden Words, which filters out offensive comments and direct messages and is on by default for creator accounts, and Limits, which hides comments and DMs from people who don’t follow you or have only recently followed you, the statement said.

We know nothing will fix the offensive behaviour, Meta said, but we are committed to continuing to work closely with the football industry to help keep our apps a safe place for footballers and fans.

Twitter responded with an auto-reply of a poop emoji when the AP reached out for comment.

For Platten, the founder of GoBubble, the platforms are striking a balance between maintaining a large user base for revenue purposes and being seen as tough on racism.

There will always be a position where they might come close to solving the problem, he said, but they will never do all the pork we all want them to do, in terms of repression and resolution.

Some teams and athletes choose alternative platforms to promote not only themselves but also more ethical behavior online.

These include Striver, a user-generated content platform backed by Roberto Carlos and Gilberto Silva, both World Cup winners with Brazil in 2002. And PixStory, a platform with nearly 1 million users that ranks them based on integrity of their posts and aims to create social cleanliness by prioritizing security in a way that big tech companies aren’t doing.

English club Arsenal, Italian women’s team Juventus and Paris Saint-Germains are partnering with PixStory, whose founder, Appu Esthose Suresh, says teams and athletes are in a comma 22 situation.

They want to live in this space because it’s a way to reach out and interact with their fans, but there’s not enough security, Suresh told the AP. There is an alternative way and this changes the business model.

Ultimately, the biggest change will likely come through legislation. Last month, the European Union reached an agreement in principle on the Digital Services Act, which will force big tech companies to better protect European users from harmful online content or be punished with billions of dollars in fines for non-compliance. In Great Britain, the government has proposed the Online Safety Bill, with potential fines amounting to 10% of the platform’s global annual turnover.

Meanwhile, the number of online racial abusers facing criminal charges has increased. In March, a man who abused England forward Ivan Toney was banned from every football stadium in Britain for three years in what police described as a landmark ruling.

Onuoha has welcomed these developments, but still maintains his social media accounts in a private setting.

There will be a lot of good people who won’t be able to connect with me, but it’s a consequence of not having enough trust and confidence that enough good people can access the account, he said. It’s the 1% that made up for the whole experience.


Douglas reported from Sundsvall, Sweden.


This is part of an Associated Press series examining racism in soccer.


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