A UK tech firm using artificial intelligence and publicly available information has embarrassed global giants Twitter, Facebook and Instagram by demonstrating it is perfectly possible to track online abuse and unmask perpetrators.
London-based company Signify has shown it can analyse hundreds of thousands of messages and pull out abuse aimed at footballers – using text or emojis – within hours.
Signify is in discussion with Premier League clubs about how they can use the technology to protect players who are routinely attacked on social media.
Their work reveals the huge volume of hate, covering race, homophobia, disability and religion, as well as the deluge of general abuse, aimed at footballers every week.
Manchester United’s Anthony Martial has been targeted with racist abuse twice in a few weeks – and an AI company in London has developed tech that can identify the social media abusers
Hector Bellerin (left) promoted an LGBT campaign ahead of the north London derby
The Arsenal full back received a barrage of homophobic abuse after the game
THREE-PRONGED APPROACH TO ABUSE
The development of AI technology available to football clubs enables a three-pronged approach to curb social media abuse of footballers.
Firstly, big tech firms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are under pressure to do more to tackle the problem by improving their own use of technology to highlight posts and act.
Secondly, Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden is developing an Online Harms Bill, which is expected to pass into law later this year. It will bring huge fines for tech giants that don’t do enough to protect users.
And now finally, clubs and the Premier League have access to technology that allows them to protect their players, identify the abuse and some of the perpetrators. The creation of a centrally or club-based system was a recommendation of a PFA report last year into online abuse.
Signify shared with Sportsmail its analysis of abuse aimed at four players – Hector Bellerin, Antonio Rudiger, Granit Xhaka and Harry Kane – as well as an analysis of anti-Semitic remarks made before Tottenham Hotspur’s matches with Chelsea and Arsenal this season.
The firm crunched down more than 800,000 social media posts and identified 3,500 abusive messages across periods of just 30 days. [See below for an analysis of the abuse directed at each player].
In up to two-thirds of cases, the firm can cross-reference public information and identify the sick individuals, sometimes confirming the person is actually a season-ticket holder at the club whose players they are targeting.
In one analysis, the company identified abusive comments from 52 season-ticket holders at multiple clubs, of which 25 were discriminatory, which includes abuse such as racism.
Signify’s work calls out the excuses of big tech firms, who have insisted they are doing all they can to stem the relentless tide of abuse, but also creates an opportunity for clubs to step in and ‘throw a protective blanket’ over their own players.
The latest victim in Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, who has been targeted for the second time in a few weeks. He was the victim of racial abuse on social media again after Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday afternoon.
The French forward started the match before being taken off on 66 minutes as Ole Gunnar Solskajer’s side slipped up in their Premier League title charge and now lie seven points behind leaders Manchester City.
Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka (left) has received racist and religious abuse on social media
After he was sent off against Burnley, Xhaka was targeted by disgraceful online trolls
After the game, messages of racial hatred – including various symbols such as abhorrent gorilla emojis, and expletives – were seen on Martial’s Instagram account.
‘Our technology can scan millions of pieces of content and identify the most abusive using publicly available data,’ a Signify spokesman told Sportsmail.
‘We pair this with our open-source investigation capability and in more cases than not, we can also verify the “true life” identities of prolific abusers who hide their real profiles.
‘Of course, the platforms need to take responsibility, but what we offer is a significant extra layer of protection that the football family can wrap around players. It’s shifting the current state of play from reactive to proactive.’
Antonio Rudiger has been targeted by racist abuse and fans angry at Frank Lampard’s exit
Signify’s work is potentially a breakthrough in the fight against online abuse and comes after Premier League footballers, including Chelsea duo Reece James and Antonio Rudiger along with West Brom’s Romaine Sawyers and United’s Marcus Rashford, have reported racial abuse on social media directed at them in recent weeks.
While it forces big tech to up its game, the technology also creates a real possibility for the clubs to amass evidence of abuse to pass to the police in evidence packages.
In addition, it will allow clubs to use their existing powers to ban abusive fans from their grounds, as they would not hesitate to do if someone shouted racist or homophobic hate at a player in the stadium.
Some online abusers go to great lengths to hide their identity – perhaps not surprisingly many are casually hurling abuse from accounts that are currently cloaked in secrecy.
Harry Kane was the most abused Spurs player before matches with Chelsea and Arsenal
Signify analysed the online messages sent to individual Spurs’ players around the matches
The service could be available to clubs for as little as £5,000 per month, Sportsmail understands.
‘We need to create an environment where abusers feel they will get outed and action will be taken,’ said Signify. ‘That could be anything from being banned from attending matches, having their social accounts deleted through to police prosecution.
‘For all these elements to come together, football, the platforms and police need to work as one,’ said Signify.
To date, most of the discussion has been about what more big tech can do to stop the haters.
Twitter and Facebook have told Premier League clubs they will never end the practice of allowing users to open anonymous accounts
The leaders of English football sent a letter to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey (right) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (left) about levels of abuse on their platforms
The abuse of footballers online has increased during lockdown, according to the antiracism charity, Kick It Out.
Boredom and a sense that they are not accountable has led social media users to bombard players.
‘Lockdown has led to an increase in abuse,’ Sanjay Bhandari told Sportsmail. ‘We said it would and it has.’
The conclusion is consistent with what was seen in the first lockdown.
A study by the PFA Charity, undertaken by Signify, focused on 44 players and found that almost half of them received targeted and racist abuse.
During the six weeks of ‘Project Restart’, Signify analysed 825,515 tweets directed at the conclusion players, identifying over 3,000 explicitly abusive messages, while 56% of all the discriminatory abuse identified during the study was racist.
In addition, 29% of racially abusive posts came in emoji form.
Among the PFA report’s recommendations, football’s stakeholders and clubs should work together and fund a centralised AI-driven system to proactively monitor abusive users across social media platforms.
Another was to call on social media platforms to address abusive emojis: greater use of monitoring and technology to address the use of emojis as a form of abuse.
Football united last week in its condemnation of Twitter, Facebook and Instragram in an explosive letter to the platforms’ chief executives, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg.
The open letter, which has eight signatories, including the FA, Premier League, the EFL and Kick It Out, demanded that Dorsey and Zuckerberg bring the ‘vicious’ abuse of players, staff and officials to an end for reasons of ‘basic human decency’.
And it accused them of allowing their sites to become ‘havens for abuse’.
Central to football’s demands were calls to improve their measures for verifying accounts, blocking abuse with filters and taking down accounts.
‘Everyone needs to do more,’ said Sanjay Bhandari, chief executive of the anti-racism organisation Kick It Out told Sportsmail. ‘But in order of the ability to influence change it is the social media companies, then the Government and then football
However, Twitter and Facebook have made it clear to leading Premier League clubs that they will never end the practice of allowing users to open anonymous accounts and that using forms of identification to verify accounts is not going to happen.
The social media companies argue that it violates the free speech functions of technology. Given its importance in political uprisings, such as the Arab Spring, the Hong Kong democracy movement and the current protests in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny companies will not insist on users identifying themselves.
Instead, the social media giants will continue to toughen up the policing of social media abuse in-house using their own technological tools.
Instagram was the first social media firm to blink as the pressure builds.
The platform does not use technology to proactively detect content within private messages, but it has announced new measures, including removing abusive accounts, in a bid to reduce the abuse people get in direct messages.
Meanwhile, the Government has been ratcheting up the pressure on the firms by developing a new law, which promises to fine the companies billions of pounds if they don’t meet their obligations under a new ‘duty of care’.
Bellerin was targeted after he spoke out on sexuality – he was bombarded with abuse
The Arsenal full back put his head above the parapet to support the club’s Rainbow Laces campaign, to promote equality last December.
The campaign, in partnership with the Gay Gooners, coincided with the north London derby, in order to maximise the profile.
However, it also amplified the homophobic abuse. When Arsenal lost 2-0 away to Spurs, fans turned on the defender, who often uses his social media platform to speak out about social justice.
Bellerin and Xhaka were singled out for homophobic, racist and violent abuse and threats
Signify monitored 367,000 tweets around the derby and the following match against Burnley on December 13. The company found Bellerin was targeted more than any other Arsenal player, received 47 abusive tweets, of which 28 were discriminatory, including homophobia and racism.
‘@HectorBellerin. Get the F*** OUT MY CLUB you useless a** swine, go back to spain and become a lesbian model cuz thats the only thing you’re good at. F******* useless w*** stain,’ tweeted @Lord_Reaper_.
‘Pull your shorts down you f******* lesbian @HectorBellerin,’ @Niall_Burke26 tweeted.
One of the homophobic messages directed at the Arsenal full back after the game with Spurs
This homophobic message was reported and the account is no longer active on Twitter
While some accounts making abusive remarks have disappeared from Twitter, like this one, others are still active, including @Lord_Reaper_ and @Niall_Burke26
While some Twitter accounts targeting Bellerin have been suspended or no longer exist, both of these accounts, @Lord_Reaper_ and @Niall_Burke26 are still active.
Bellerin has been targeted with homophobic abuse before when he had long hair and must have known the risk of stepping forward, but he did it anyway believing football should help to ‘break down barriers’.
‘Football is rooted in a very masculine culture,’ he told Sky at the launch of Rainbow Laces. ‘It’s very toxic at times. But society in the 21st century is not how it was 20 or 30 years ago.
‘The world is evolving and we need to accept everyone the way they are. It’s a way for us to be happier.’
This graph shows the level of abuse directed at Arsenal players ahead of their game at Spurs
Xhaka’s relationship with Arsenal fans has been turbulent – in 2019 he was booed off
Arsenal’s defensive midfielder and former captain Granit Xhaka has had a difficult relationship with Gunners’ fans.
Periods of indifferent form and moments of madness on the field that have resulted in red cards have marked the Swiss international out as a target.
In October 2019, Xhaka was substituted after little more than an hour against Crystal Palace and was booed off. His response was to curse the fans and remove his shirt.
Xhaka received abuse online after he was sent off for a scuffle with Burnley’s Ashley Westwood
The sending off on December 13 triggered racist and religious abuse of the Swiss midfielder
It looked like the incident would mark the end of his Arsenal career, but he recovered under new boss Mikel Arteta.
However, he succumbed to the red mist in the Gunners’ embarrassing defeat to Burnley on December 13 this season, when he was sent off for a silly flare-up with the Clarets’ Ashley Westwood.
This was the cue for the haters to pile in online, using Xhaka’s Kosovo-Albania heritage and his religion – he is a Muslim – to attack him.
This time Signify analysed 117,000 tweets over a 30-day period around the game and uncovered an enormous 1,374 abusive posts. The abuse peaked on the day of the Burnley game with more than 700 abusive tweets.
Six posts actually called for harm to the former Arsenal captain after the Burnley game
Some posts made abusive references to Xhaka’s Kosovo Albanian heritage
‘Xhaka is an absolute Albanian Nazi w*****,’ tweeted @_cxllumD_
Xhaka f*** off you t***, terrorist c*** is going to blow up the mosque soon the fake Muslim, tweeted, @ArtetasArsenal2.
In 16 cases there was ‘targeted racist abuse’, and some of the abusers identified themselves as Arsenal season-ticket holders.
Six posts expressed a desire to hurt Xhaka.
‘I want Xhaka hanging from a tree tonight,’ tweeted @Ronny_Wheeler.
‘Man shoulda stab up Xhaka tpc,’ suggested @caesar_TheF
The analysts found that three accounts were particularly prolific – and abusive.
And yet, Xhaka has come back again in an extraordinary show of resilience.
‘Since he has been back, he has been phenomenal,’ said Arteta last month.
Antonio Rudiger reported hearing monkey chants from the crowd during a game at Spurs
Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger has spoken of the ‘immense’ racist and personal abuse he has suffered on social media in his four seasons as Stamford Bridge.
Rudiger was thrust into the glare of social media last season, when he believed he heard monkey chants during Chelsea’s 2-0 away win two months at Tottenham ago, only for Spurs and the Metropolitan police to find no evidence to support his complaint.
The player believed that incident made him a target. Rudiger then became a scapegoat for some in the painful departure of former manager Frank Lampard.
Rudiger has been the target of Chelsea fans’ fury after the sacking of boss Frank Lampard
Reports claimed Rudiger had encouraged the hierarchy at Stamford Bridge to replace Lampard but the Germany international has dismissed those suggestions as ‘nonsense’.
Signify analysed 77,071 tweets in the 30 days before the return Chelsea-Spurs match in February last season. The analysts identified 52 people who were season-ticket holders at various clubs abusing the player. Of the season-ticket holders, 25 were making discriminatory remarks, which includes abuse like racism.
One year on and the company took a snapshot of Rudiger’s treatment following Lampard’s departure.
They found almost 900 abusive tweets over three days at the end of January. The vast majority accused Rudiger of being a ‘rat’ or ‘snake’.
Rudiger has suffered an incredible level of abuse online in February calling him a snake and rat
The defender has received more than 1,800 snake emojis and 200 rat images on Instagram
On Instagram, the analysts could track the abuse as emojis. He received more than 1,800 messages containing snake emojis, 200 with rats and further 24 were discriminatory abuse, such as racism.
The defender points out that players have not been given similar treatment when other managers have left the club.
‘I cannot control people’s emotions but people should be human beings,’ he said.
‘Me, I didn’t post anything but the racial abuse was immense. This makes me stronger because I know who I am, I can look in the mirror and I can smile. I know I didn’t do anything so for me this is forgotten.’
Chelsea are investigating and have said they will pass relevant information to the police.
Kane may not seem an obvious target for abuse but the England captain has also suffered
Graph shows abuse of Spurs’ players prior to their game against Chelsea in November 2020
Graph shows abuse directed at Spurs’ players around the game with Arsenal, December 2020
England and Spurs centre forward Harry Kane is not an obvious candidate for abuse, however he is routinely abused on social media.
In fact, around the club’s away game to Chelsea last November and home game to Arsenal in December, Kane was the most abused Spurs player.
In total, he was on the receiving end of 38 abusive posts. Out of a total of 91 aimed at Spurs players. Of these 19 were discriminatory, including racist, anti-Semitic or focused on disability.
Antisemitic abuse and abusive references to disability have been directed at the forward
‘Disgraceful from Kane f******* mumbling dribbling y** c***,’ tweeted @AMJXXIII.
The analysts also highlighted the widespread use of the anti-Semitic term, ‘y**’, which is both hurled by opposing fans as abuse, as well as used controversially as a badge of honour by Spurs’ own support.
Of 250,000 posts analysed around the two matches, 4,630 included the word and in 184 posts ‘y**’ was coupled with another abusive term.
‘It’s that time of the year. The time to be a vile c***… as we steam into the y**s tomorrow like the trains into the concentration camps,’ tweeted @94_MKL_, an account which is no longer accessible.