Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings has been targeted by social media trolls on several occasions in the past year. Picture: Nick Potts/Reuters
Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings has been targeted by social media trolls on several occasions in the past year. Picture: Nick Potts/Reuters

Drastic increase in social media abuse against athletes prompts ground-breaking new service

By Sameer Naik Time of article published May 1, 2021

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Johannesburg - “Fuc***g ni***r, leave football you fuc**** pig.” This is just one of the many racist messages English footballer Tyron Mings has received on social media in the past few months.

Mings, an Aston Villa defender, has been targeted by social media trolls on several occasions in the past year, with the latest incident occurring last weekend when the Premier League team suffered a defeat at the hands of leaders Manchester City.

Responding to the latest hateful message he received, the English footballer tweeted: “Another day in the life of social media with no filter.

“Please don’’t feel sorry for us, just stand side by side in the fight for change.

“Social media isn't getting any safer without it.”

Mings is not the only athlete to have suffered social media abuse.

In the last few years, it has skyrocketed, with thousands from all over the world being targeted.

In the Premier League, several black footballers have recently suffered racist taunts at the hands of social media trolls.

Footballers such as Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham, and Reading’s Yakou Meite all said they received racist messages online after missing penalties in their team’s most recent matches.

And Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Naby Keïta and Sadio Mané suffered the same.

The players were sent racist emojis and comments via Instagram after the clubs Champions League quarter-final first-leg loss to Real Madrid three weeks ago.

The situation has become so bad that a coalition of English football’s largest governing bodies and organisations including the Football Association, the Premier League, and EFL have chosen to go silent on social media next weekend in a show of solidarity against racism .

The FA Women’s Super League, FA Women’s Championship, Professional Footballers’ Association, League Managers Association, PGMOL, Kick It Out, Women in Football and the Football Supporters’ Association also suspend all use of their social media accounts from yesterday until Monday May 3.

In South Africa, athletes such as Caster Semenya, have also been targeted by social media trolls.

It's a trend that has been going on for a number of years, and continues to grow at a worrying rate.

The drastic increase has prompted international renowned sports integrity service, Sportradar, to launch a ground-breaking new service that both addresses and protects professional athletes from the growing problem of online abuse.

The Player Protection service is available to all sports federations, leagues and governing bodies, including all of South Africa’s athletes and sports federations.

The service is designed to protect the mental health and wellbeing of professional athletes by keeping them free from harm online and providing peace of mind by discouraging future trolling and abuse through successful investigation, proactive intervention and disruption.

“Sportradar’s Player Protection Services is operated by the Intelligence and Investigation team (I&I) who identify social media trolls following abuse towards athletes, referees, administrators and media figures involved in the business of sport,” Sportradar managing director of Integrity Services, Andreas Krannich told the Saturday Star this week.

“Sports federations want to tackle the abuse as a duty of care and to actively protect players and employees against the increasing threat of online-based attacks.

“This is a positive step the federation can take to protect their members and provide beneficial support.

“For instance, knowing that a particular troll is an imminent threat – or not – is key.

“In addition, effective action protects the mental well-being of players.

“The Player Protection Service from I&I can help individuals and organisations get assistance from law enforcement bodies and social media platforms to combat the problem; this acts as a powerful deterrent for future abusers.

Sportradar managing director of Integrity Services, Andreas Krannich Picture: Supplied

Describing how the service will work, Krannich said : “I use open source tools, public databases and historical intelligence to uncover all possible information about a target.

“We have designed our own tools for intelligence collation, some adapted from everyday applications, to ensure we can uncover the maximum intelligence available on the account or person in question.

“This includes finding associated details from the account and triangulating these across different social media platforms.

“We then work with the partner to report the trolls to the appropriate channel, to ensure it is more difficult for the troll to hurl abuse or even face criminal proceedings.

“Our team members hail from law enforcement and military intelligence meaning they have the required experience to carry out such investigations.

Krannich said the service will be available to all countries athletes and federations, including South Africa.

“Our priority is to support sports organisations and governing bodies around the world, including African clubs and federations, to maintain the integrity of sports and safeguard those who compete and officiate it.”

Sportradar’s Intelligence and Investigation Services team assists more than 80 partners, including federations, clubs, National Anti-Doping Organisations and law enforcement, identifying and investigating integrity threats to countries, sports and businesses, as well as providing a robust due diligence product to counter any real or perceived threats.

The Player Protection Service was successfully trialled last year at the Exo-Tennis Series across Germany and the US.

Participating players from the ATP and WTA Tours including Germany’s Dustin Brown and the US pair of Taylor Townsend and Sachia Vickery shared abusive messages they had received on social media.

Following in-depth investigation, Sportradar, the world’s leading supplier of sports integrity solutions, then provided the event organisers with details of the problem accounts and a set of recommendations on the best course of action to pursue in order to prevent future trolling and abuse.

“This case was the first instance of supporting real athletes with the increasing problems of online abuse,” said Krannich.

“In this case, we assisted these ATP and WTA players with the identification of ‘burner’ account holders directing abuse to athletes on social media.

“By using social media accounts of the abusers, Sportradar identified personal information and built personal profiles of the responsible individuals from open-source and internal holdings.

“Playsight, the agency connecting us with the players in this ATP and WTA case, told CNN that police in six locations were contacted as a result of the initial investigation.”

Krannich said it was of utmost importance to maintain the integrity of sport and to make sure athletes around the world are free of abuse.

“The work we’ve carried out at a number of tennis events, a basketball league, and other major sports in the last several months, has shown just how important this technology is and how important it will become in the fight to eradicate online abuse.

“In the first trial, we detected the identities of 21 abusers in 12 countries with several files sent to local police forces, while in other cases, social media platforms were alerted to shut down the trolls’ accounts.

“In one recent example, the I&I team were tasked to prove that a troll account belonged to a particular person who was – as it happens – an athlete in the same sport as the victim.

“Amazingly, details they used to register the troll account corresponded perfectly to another account and the troll was unmasked and will likely face disciplinary proceedings.

“The next step is to work with more associations, sports, clubs and governing bodies to widen our reach and further safeguard their professional athletes.

While the product was only recently launched, Krannich said there had been huge interest from around the world.

“We have had overwhelming interest since the Tennis case alluded to previously going viral.

“Since then, we have worked with a number of domestic and international sports federations across the world.

“In these cases, we have worked with more than 200 individual athletes who have been targeted by over 1000 trolls.

“On a more targeted basis, our most popular request recently is around a specific player or administrator – rather than a whole athlete set.”

While racial abuse is rife on social media, Krannich said it wasn’t the most common type of abuse athletes faced.

“Racism is in fact not the most common abuse type; that would be abuse directed at athletes due to lost bets by gamblers, and this abuse is no less serious. Naturally, within this category, racist insults are often included.

“Additionally, there are misogynistic comments, homophobic and transphobic abuse all identified.

“However, in order to quantify this, we would like to undertake a global study with a willing partner. “

Krannich added that social media abuse is prominent on a variety of platforms, with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter seeing the most traffic overall.

“However, TikTok, YouTube and more localised platforms such as VK in Eastern Europe will also see such abuse.”

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