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The 10 most abused top flight footballers on Twitter revealed

The top 10 most abused top flight footballers on Twitter has been revealed and it makes for rather grim reading with calls to kick it out.

Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire are the unfortunate stars to have received the most abuse of any Premier League players, a new report has found.

Ofcom analysis of 2.3 million tweets in the first half of last season found nearly 60,000 abusive posts, affecting seven in 10 top-flight players.

Half of that abuse was directed at just 12 individuals – eight from the Old Trafford outfit.

However, the study by the Alan Turing Institute also found the vast majority of fans use social media responsibly.

“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.”

Players who received abuse

The report identified two peaks in the frequency of abusive tweets – the first coming on the day Ronaldo rejoined the Red Devils on the 27th of August 2021, generating three times more tweets than any other day (188,769), of which 3,961 were abusive. At 2.3%, that is marginally lower than the daily average, say BBC Sport.

The amount of posts can largely be accounted for because of Ronaldo’s 98.4m followers. On this day, he was mentioned in 90% of all tweets aimed at Premier League footballers and 97% of abusive tweets.

The second peak came on the 7th of November when Maguire tweeted an apology following Man Utd’s 2-0 home defeat by rivals Man City.

Harry Maguire tweet

At the time, 2,903 abusive tweets were sent – 10.6% of the total that day – with a users reacting to Maguire’s post using insulting or demeaning language.

The report also find a duplicated tweet – using the same exact phrase – was sent to Maguire 69 times by different users within two hours.

The study says “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 Alan Turing Institute said that understanding the organisation of online abuse is of increasing interest given the harm caused by co-ordinated attacks and “pile-ons”.

Other players were targeted by large volumes of abuse following a “trigger”, despite receiving relatively few tweets overall.

Newcastle defender Ciaran Clark, currently on loan at Sheffield United, was sent off against Norwich in November, with 78% of the abusive tweets he received coming on this day.

Crystal Palace’s James McArthur was also the subject of a spike in abuse after being yellow carded for stepping on Bukayo Saka against Arsenal in October.

Researchers will look into whether a spike took place when an incident that saw West Ham defender Kurt Zouma kicking and slapping his cat came to light, as that took place after the data was collected.

As part of its preparation to regulate tech giants under new online safety laws, Ofcom got together with the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, to analyse more than 2.3 million tweets directed at Premier League footballers over the first five months of the 2021-22 season.

The study created a new machine-learning technology to automatically work out whether tweets are abusive, while a team of experts also manually reviewed a random sample of 3,000 tweets.

Of that sample, 57% were positive towards players, 27% were neutral and 12.5% were critical and the 3.5% were abusive.

Of the 2.3m tweets analysed with the machine-learning tool, 2.6% contained abuse.

“These stark findings uncover the extent to which footballers are subjected to vile abuse across social media,” said Dr Bertie Vidgen, lead author of the report and head of online safety at the Alan Turing Institute.

“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.”

Abuse aimed at footballers
Credit: BBC Sport

“Social media firms needn’t wait for new laws to make their sites and apps safer for users,” said Ofcom’s Bakhurst.

“When we become the regulator for online safety, tech companies will have to be really open about the steps they’re taking to protect users. We will expect them to design their services with safety in mind.

“Supporters can also play a positive role in protecting the game they love. Our research shows the vast majority of online fans behave responsibly and, as the new season kicks off, we’re asking them to report unacceptable, abusive posts whenever they see them.”

A Twitter spokesperson said: “We are committed to combating abuse and, as outlined in our Hateful Conduct Policy, we do not tolerate the abuse or harassment of people on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.

“As acknowledged in the report, this type of research is only possible because our public API is open and accessible to all. However, our publicly-accessible API does not take into account the range of safeguards we put in place, so this does not completely reflect the user experience.”

Twitter ads that it had not seen the data, but claimed 50% of all “violative content” is found by its own processes to help the burden on an individual to report abuse, adding “we know there is still work to be done”.

European football’s governing body, UEFA, have already pledged to work with social media platforms to tackle online abuse as part of a Respect campaign during the European Women’s Championship.

Other projects have included BBC Sport’s Hate Won’t Win campaign, alongside Sky Sports, while in April 2021, we saw four days of football clubs, players, athletes and a number of sporting bodies boycotting of social media in an attempt to tackle abuse and discrimination.

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