TOHIF at Fair Game UK 2024

Fair Game UK held its annual conference at AFC Wimbledon’s Plough Lane on 21 May. Among the attendees were TOHIF’s Colm Kearns and Dan Kilvington. Fair Game UK is an organisation aimed at ensuring football is governed with fairness, openness and transparency. Their advisory council includes representatives from several professional football clubs up and down the league pyramid.

The conference featured a series of thought-provoking sessions on the governance, fairness and sustainability of football in the UK. Topics discussed included the proposed independent football regulator, the ramifications of the scrapping of FA Cup replays, football’s failing financial model, and online hate in football. Dan Kilvington was one of the featured speakers in this last panel and provided attendees with insights on the problem gathered over the course of the TOHIF project.

Throughout the day, Dan and Colm manned a stall on the TOHIF project, providing interested attendees with badges, business cards, flyers and lively conversation about the issue of online hate in football. They had the opportunity to speak with journalists, activists and club officials on a wide variety of topics related to the issue, such as how ableist abuse is often overlooked, flaws in the structures for reporting abuse, and the difficulties of discerning genuine insights from an enormous dataset.

Fair Game UK provided the TOHIF team with a vital opportunity to meet and network with key stakeholders concerned about the issue of online hate in football. It is likely that many fruitful collaborations will follow from this.

Further Details on TOHIF’s Workshops at Sky Sports News

The TOHIF team have successfully facilitated a series of interactive workshops at Sky Sports News (SSN). These workshops, building on from our wider research with sports journalists, were designed to explore the experiences of sport media personnel working in a variety of roles including journalism, production, editing and presenting.

The workshop, entitled ‘Sports Media and Online Harms’, was underpinned by a participatory-design approach as we allowed significant time for participants to share their stories, ideas and possible solutions. The workshop was structured around three core areas: 1) experiences of online harms/abuse; 2) how online harms/abuse impacts upon personal and professional lives; 3) ways in which employers/institutions and individuals themselves can be protected and supporting against online harms/abuse.

Akin to our prior research with 21 sports journalists working in the UK and Ireland in digital, print, broadcast and freelance sectors, these workshops enabled us share our emerging findings, gather new insights and sharpen potential outputs. Workshop participants spoke freely and shared their stories, many of which resonated with others and connected with our wider emerging findings.

It was noted that online harms/abuse takes place in many different guises, forms and across different platforms. Some use social media platforms to interact, others choose to ‘lurk’, while a smaller cohort opt to stay clear of social media (this approach is adopted by more senior and experienced members of the workforce).

Some overarching themes occurred across the workshops. It was suggested that online harms/abuse can affect confidence and criticality in work. Journalists, for example, may run ‘safer’ stories and angles in a bid to mitigate online abuse but this has the potential to stifle creativity. Participants also spoke of ‘doxing’ whereby online users trawl social media profiles and past work to uncover any issues/mistakes in an attempt to get them sacked. It was added that identified ‘mistakes’ were often taken out of context and manipulated. Mental health and wellbeing was also raised as some participants highlighted that when family members including parents, partners and even children are targeted, or observe the abuse, it can negatively affect wellbeing.

However, in the true spirit of journalistic balance, we must demonstrate some of the positive features social media offers those working in the sport media. For example, some participants suggested that social media, if used correctly, can be an excellent tool to help reporting as breaking news stories, quotes, contacts and public reactions can be easily and quickly garnered. Moreover, some argued that because of social media and the possible threat of online hostility, it further encouraged journalists to triple check content before posting meaning that quality standards may have increased.

Nonetheless, online harms/abuse is a critical threat and the sport media industry needs to acknowledge and develop appropriate counter-measures to best protect and support the workforce. SSN, building on from their ‘Against Online Hate’ campaign in 2021, and their current policies and practices devoted to challenging online harms/abuse, have enthusiastically opened their doors to the TOHIF team and look to further collaborate. Academic researchers and stakeholders must work together if we are to challenge this deeply concerning and pervasive issue.

TOHIF Workshops With Sky Sports Journalists

Throughout January and February 2024, TOHIF team members visited Sky Sports Studios in London to deliver three workshops on the risks and impacts of online harms for sports journalists. The workshops featured the TOHIF team speaking to a wide range of Sky staff, from production to on-air reporters to department heads, about the issues faced by the industry at large and opening discussions to potential solutions and the challenges to achieving those solutions.

The sessions synthesised previous research into the relationship between sports journalism and online harms, as well as drawing from the original research that TOHIF has conducted into this area. Case studies – drawn from high profile instances of journalists speaking about the online abuse they had suffered, and from interviews with journalists conducted by TOHIF researchers – outlined the nature of the online harms suffered by sports journalists.

The sessions also offered the opportunity for Sky journalists to discuss their own – and colleagues’ – experiences of online harms, and to outline the emotional and professional impacts it had. In light of the material outlined by the TOHIF researchers, this set their struggle in the context of the challenges faced by the industry as a whole. Furthermore, the sessions invited attendees to discuss potential solutions to the problem, opening up a forum for intra-organisational discussion of how Sky handles the risks and ramifications of online harms experienced by their staff. It also provided TOHIF researchers with the opportunity to gain new insights into the issue from those at the forefront of it.

Look out for a further blog post in the near future, outlining some of the key insights gathered in these workshops.

How sport became a vehicle for far-right conspiracy theories

The “take the knee” protest during Euro 2020 was a symbolic act of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, signalling, primarily, a call for an end to racial injustice. Aside from the competition on the pitch, the decision by specific national teams to “take the knee”, and the subsequent wave of online hostility aimed at members of the English national team, meant that the protest faced not only vocal support but also a barrage of criticism. With some questioning its political efficacy, its influence on the world of sports, and its broader implications, the protest and the tournament reflected the various complexities encompassing sport’s relation to contemporary political issues, as well as ongoing and future discussions surrounding athlete activism and social justice. The online criticisms, circulating mostly on X [formerly known as Twitter], targeting the concept of “wokeism” and the BLM movement, were driven by alt-right conspiracies, which sought to expose an assumed Cultural Marxist “woke agenda” in the organisation of the tournament and the mainstream media’s coverage of it.

While these criticisms fed into broader political and social issues, highlighting the interconnected nature of online discourses, the alarming ease with which the Cultural Marxist theory found fertile ground in online discourses on sport raises serious concerns…

 

The above is the beginning of a piece written by the TOHIF Team for the London School of Economics website. To read the full article on the LSE site, click here.

What Motivated the TOHIF Football Supporters Survey

Research into online hate in sport is a growing concern among fans, journalists and sports professionals alike. It is therefore fitting that academia is rising to the challenge posed by this issue, with a burgeoning body of research focusing on online hate across a variety of sporting contexts. Over 50 peer reviewed papers have been published on this issue in the last 5 years. However, while there is much insight collected across this body of work, there is still a glaring gap when it comes to research when it comes to sports fans’ experience of online hate.

Most of the research examines instances of fans engaging in online abuse of athletes, analysing the content of the abusive posts and the wider context regarding the various prejudices, sporting cultures and online communication platforms involved. There is little attention paid to (A) fans experiences of, and feelings concerning, the issue of online abuse in their sport, and (B) first hand accounts of the motivations and opinions of fans who have perpetrated online abuse.

This lacuna was one of the foremost concerns of the TOHIF project when we devised our Football Supporters Survey. The survey seeks out the views of football fans on online abuse, fan activism and the general experience of following the game online. Specifically, it features questions on the frequency of incurring online abuse from other fans, what issues tend to trigger such abuse, and the emotional impact of being on the receiving end of these attacks. From this data, we hope to expand the conversation on online hate in sport beyond headline-grabbing incidents of players being abused by fans to develop a wider and deeper picture of the underlying culture of online rancour and transgression in discussions of sport.

Additionally, the survey features a question toward the end on whether participants have ever engaged in online abuse of others. Participants who answer ‘Yes’ are asked a follow-up open question on their motivations for doing so. Through the gathering of data concerning the answers of this question, TOHIF aims to develop research outputs on the factors which shape the mindset of abusive fans and, consequently, what can be done to effectively mitigate such factors.

 

The TOHIF Football Supporters Survey is open to all football fans and can be found here.

What the Research Says: Confronting Online Hate in Sport

Sport serves as a revealing backdrop for the manifestation of hate speech and discrimination. Culture clashes and global socio-economic power struggles often ignite within the sporting arena and continue to smoulder long afterward. As a result, incidences of hate speech in sport have spread across digital platforms, with social media and online forums being used to circulate hateful, offensive, or discriminatory content. Policymakers, sport governing bodies, and grassroots anti-hate organizations now find themselves struggling to keep up with a rapidly changing online-landscape. The importance of addressing and combating online hate speech in sport is now an essential problem in maintaining integrity, diversity, and respect within the sporting community.

Recognizing the urgency of addressing this matter, the Tackling Online Hate in Football (TOHIF) team conducted a scoping review to provide an extensive overview of scholarship on this topic. The review served to provide a comprehensive compilation of previously employed research methodologies, case studies, and conclusions, identifying the breadth and depth of existing research, while also recognising key themes, gaps in knowledge, and areas for further research. In so doing, the review not only provided a concise overview of existing research in the field but also sheds light on areas and approaches in dire need of further examination.

Key Findings
The reviewed research consistently highlighted how the emotional elements intertwined with sport serve as a catalyst for the proliferation of hate speech on social media platforms. This revealed a noticeable shift from traditional message boards and fan forums to contemporary social media platforms, such as, Twitter and Facebook. These platforms have gained prominence as primary sources for real-time reactions to sporting events. This shift is not merely a matter of changing communication mediums; it represents a significant surge in cases of online hate speech, with Twitter (now “X”) being the most popular data source for researchers examining online hate speech in sport.

Importantly, this increase has had a profound impact on athletes, fans, and sport journalists, inflicting emotional scars and psychological distress, while also adversely affecting the mental health and overall well-being of those subjected to its vitriol. The scoping review sounds an alarm, signalling that sport governing bodies and grassroots anti-hate organizations need to take a more proactive stance in addressing this distressing issue. By underscoring the critical importance of recognizing the shifting landscape of online hate speech in sport, as well as the ongoing affects it can have on athletes, fans, and journalists, the review emphasises the need for creating safer, more inclusive, and respectful online environments for athletes, fans, and sport enthusiasts worldwide.

Potential Solutions
As TOHIF delves deeper into the alarming issue of online hate speech in sport, one question looms large: how can we effectively combat this pervasive problem? In the face of this escalating challenge, it is imperative to explore and evaluate potential strategies that can help us manage our online spaces. From technology-driven tools to education and awareness campaigns, these approaches hold the potential to transform the digital sport landscape into a safer and more welcoming space for all. The review presents the following prospective measures to address and combat online hate speech in sport:

Social Media Monitoring Tools
The deployment of social media monitoring tools is designed to identify and track instances of online hate speech, enabling sport governing bodies and anti-hate organizations to take action against those responsible. While not infallible, these tools serve as a potent weapon in the fight against online hate speech in sport. In the face of the rampant proliferation of online hate speech, such tools become a potent weapon, enabling a proactive response to protect the integrity of sport and the well-being of those involved.

Education and Awareness Campaigns
Many instances of online hate speech in sport stem from ignorance and a lack of understanding. Here, the implementation of education and awareness campaigns, based around enlightening athletes and fans about the far-reaching consequences of online hate speech, can contribute to reducing the prevalence of online hate as well as offering support and guidance to sporting organisations. In this way, these campaigns offer not only a means of prevention but also a means of nurturing a more inclusive and positive online environment.

Future Research
While it is undeniable that both social media monitoring tools and educational awareness campaigns play a crucial role in tackling online hate speech, the perpetuation of hate online remains a multifaceted and persistent challenge. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that research concerning online hate in sport, both embraces and advances interdisciplinary cooperation within the academic sphere. While this approach is vital to counteracting the potential narrowing of intellectual perspectives, for brevity, we emphasize the following key recommendations for ensuring future interdisciplinary research in this area:

1. Expanding research beyond Western sport contexts.
2. Delving deeper into the examination of less-explored forms of prejudice.
3. Conducting research that considers the unique characteristics of specific sports and their connection to online hate.
4. Shifting focus toward niche and image-driven social media platforms.
5. Employing a greater range of primary research methods.
6. Investigating the connections between instances of online abuse and organized hate groups.

TACKLING ONLINE HATE IN FOOTBALL

TOHIF was funded by UKRI-AHRC and the Irish Research Council under the ‘UK-Ireland Collaboration in the Digital Humanities Research Grants Call’ (grant numbers: AH/W001624/1 and IRC/W001624/1).

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