A new report shows the scale of social media abuse directed at players and coaches involved in the FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier this year, with the United States Women’s National Team bearing the brunt.

FIFA and world players’ union FIFPro have released joint findings from data generated by the Social Media Protection Service (SMPS), a tool that uses Artificial Intelligence to reduce the exposure of players, teams and officials to online hate.

The percentage of homophobic posts received by players at the tournament in Australia and New Zealand was nearly twice the equivalent figure of their male counterparts from Qatar 2022.

Overwhelmingly, the USWNT was the most targeted of the 32 teams participating in the Women’s World Cup in July and August, receiving more than double the amount of abuse of the next nation on the list.

A.I. monitored and moderated abusive posts and comments that were directed at nearly 700 players during the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The SMPS analysed 5.1 million posts and comments in 35 different languages, looking for abusive content that may have been directed at over 2,000 accounts belonging to players and coaches.

Approximately 103,000 of these posts and comments on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X and YouTube were flagged by the ‘Threat Matrix’ A.I. program for further analysis by humans.

Following that process, 7,085 posts and comments were verified as abusive and reported to the relevant platforms, with X (formerly Twitter) accounting for 87% of that figure.

The report shows that around a fifth of all players at the tournament were sent online hate, and that 20% of the abusive messages detected were homophobic.

‘General abuse’ constituted 23% of detected abuse; 15% was sexual in nature; 13.7% was sexist; and 9.9% was racist. Transphobia accounted for 0.53% of abusive messages, according to the data.

The day on which the most abuse was sent to players was August 6, when the USWNT exited the World Cup on penalty kicks to Sweden in the round of 16.

Where the locations of the accounts sending abuse could be verified, two-thirds were found to be controlled by users registered in North and Central America.

Over 150 players were targeted for abuse overall but two individuals — one from the USWNT, the other from Argentina — received significantly more abuse than other players. FIFA has chosen not to name either woman in its report.

Megan Rapinoe, whose activism on LGBTQ rights and tackling discrimination has become more strident alongside the growing toxicity of social media, was one of three USWNT players who missed in the shootout defeat by the Swedes in Melbourne.

Rapinoe was also one of at least 96 publicly out LGBTQ players competing at the Women’s World Cup, according to Outsports research.

Atletico Madrid and Colombia midfielder Leicy Santos, also among that group of out LGBTQ players, is quoted in the report as saying: “If there is one thing that footballers suffer from the most, apart from losing, it is all the abusive comments — the taunts, the insults.

“Beyond what we do as professional footballers, we are people. Some players are able to put up with the outrageous abuse we receive online, but other players aren’t. It is a very sensitive issue when it comes to mental health.”

The SMPS service has been offered to players and their representatives at eight FIFA tournaments since its launch in 2022. If they opt in for moderation of one or more social media accounts, the A.I. is designed to filter out hate speech and abusive messages.

However, the challenges around two of the most popular platforms are evidenced by this explainer within the report…

X currently lacks the functionality for a user to fully hide a reply to one of their tweets resulting in this element not being covered by the SMPS moderation and TikTok does not allow automatic, API-driven moderation of comments.

Other notable statements in the report include a key finding that “homophobia was prolific” and that “sexist, sexual and homophobic messages appear to be the weapon of choice to target players.”

FIFPro president David Aganzo says his organization and FIFA need more help to tackle the problem of toxicity on social media, which he described as “a risky place to be in for players” due to the potential impact on their mental health.

“We cannot do this alone,” stressed Aganzo. “Football needs all stakeholders to play their part if we want to create a safer and better environment for everyone.”

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