Nearly 60,000 abusive tweets, affecting seven out of ten top-flight players, were discovered in an Ofcom study of 2.3 million tweets from the first half of the previous season.
Just 12 people — eight of them United professionals — dominate half of all the abuse. The Alan Turing Institute’s study did reveal, however, that the vast majority of fans behave properly on social media.
“These findings shed light on a dark side to the beautiful game,” said Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director for broadcasting and online content.
“Online abuse has no place in sport, nor in wider society, and tackling it requires a team effort.”
Ronaldo and Maguire most targeted
According to the research, there were two peaks in the quantity of hateful tweets. On August 27, 2021, the day Ronaldo returned to Manchester United, there were 3,961 hostile tweets, which was three times more than any previous day (188,769). With 2.3 percent, that is just below the daily average.
Given Ronaldo’s 98.4 million followers, the volume of comments may be largely explained. 90 percent of the tweets directed against Premier League players on this day and 97 percent of the abusive tweets included mentions of the Portugal forward.
Following Manchester United’s 2-0 home loss to Manchester City on November 7, the second surge occurred when defender Maguire issued an apology.
As a result of numerous users responding to Maguire’s article with offensive or humiliating language, there were 2,903 abusive tweets sent that day, or 10.6 percent of all tweets.
According to the article, Maguire received 69 identical tweets within a two-hour period from various persons, all using the same same sentence.
“It is possible that this duplication occurred because users saw the abusive message and decided to replicate it – indicating organic organisation rather than coordinated behaviour,” the study said.
Because of the harm caused by coordinated attacks and “pile-on,” the Alan Turing Institute stated that understanding the organisation of online abuse is of growing importance.
Despite receiving comparatively few tweets overall, other players were the focus of enormous volumes of abuse after a “trigger”.
When Norwich visited Newcastle in November, defender Ciaran Clark of Newcastle, who is currently on loan at Sheffield United, received 78 percent of the sexist tweets.
James McArthur of Crystal Palace also saw an increase of bullying after receiving a yellow card for stepping on Bukayo Saka against Arsenal in October.
Given that the event with West Ham defender Kurt Zouma kicking and hitting his cat occurred after the data was obtained, researchers will also examine whether a spike occurred at that time.
How did the study work?
The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, and Ofcom collaborated to analyse more than 2.3 million tweets aimed at Premier League footballers during the first five months of the 2021–22 season as part of its preparation to regulate tech giants under new online safety laws.
A team of experts also personally assessed a random sample of 3,000 tweets as part of the project, which also developed new machine-learning algorithms to automatically determine if tweets are offensive.
Of that sample, 57% were in favour of the players, 27% were neutral, and 12.5% were against them. 3.5% of the population was abusive.
2.6% of the 2.3 million tweets that were analysed using the machine-learning technique contained abuse.
The lead author of the report and head of online safety at the Alan Turing Institute, Dr Bertie Vidgen said about the study: “These stark findings uncover the extent to which footballers are subjected to vile abuse across social media.”
“While tackling online abuse is difficult, we can’t leave it unchallenged. More must be done to stop the worst forms of content, to ensure that players can do their job without being subjected to abuse.”
The new Premier League season will kick off on Friday, August 5 2022.