More than 300 abusive tweets are sent to Premier League footballers every day and nearly seven in 10 players receive abuse on Twitter, according to a study.
Manchester United stars dominate the list of the 10 most abused players on the platform, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford, although the squad that receives the highest proportion of abusive tweets overall is Tottenham Hotspur.
The findings were released on Tuesday by the communications regulator Ofcom, ahead of the start of the new Premier League season this week.
“Over the years, football has made great strides in tackling unacceptable behaviour by small minorities which can blight the game for everyone else – from hooliganism, to contemptible racist or homophobic abuse. But those threats never go away; and sadly, as this report reminds, abuse now exists far from the stadium on social media,” said Kevin Bakhurst, the group director for broadcasting and online content at Ofcom.
He added: “Many victims – though by no means all – are from minority-ethnic backgrounds.”
Ofcom commissioned researchers at the Alan Turing Institute, the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, who analysed tweets sent during the first five months of the 2021-22 football season.
The institute looked at 2.3m tweets sent between 13 August 2021 and 24 January 2022 and the study also manually reviewed a randomly chosen sample of 3,000 tweets, which helped inform the machine-learning tool that powered the study.
It studied 618 player accounts via publicly available Twitter data, looking at tweets that tagged the player directly.
The report defined an abusive tweet as a message that “threatens, insults, derogates, dehumanises, mocks or belittles a player”, including “slurs, negative stereotypes, excessive use of profanities and angry emoji”.
It found that 60,000 abusive tweets were directed towards Premier League players in the first half of the season, an average of 362 every day. The report added that 68% of Premier League players received at least one abusive tweet.
The report found that 12 players accounted for 50% of all abusive tweets, with Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire in the top two slots. In total, eight out of 10 of the most abused footballers on Twitter in the Premier League were Manchester United players, along with Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Manchester City’s Jack Grealish.
However, the club with the highest proportion of abusive tweets, as a percentage of all tweets sent to players at their individual clubs, was Tottenham Hotspur at 3.7%, followed by Manchester United and Everton. By some distance, United players received the largest number of abusive tweets by volume. The report found that 8.6% of all abusive tweets – more than 5,100 tweets – were identity attacks that referred to a protected characteristic such as race, gender or sexuality.
The player who suffered the highest proportion of abusive tweetswas Newcastle’s Ciaran Clark. Clark received nearly 80% of the abusive tweets on 30 November, when he was sent off against Norwich City.
The report added that its sample survey of 3,000 tweets showed that the majority of tweets (57%) were positive towards players, a further quarter being “neutral” and 12.5% being critical.
Bertie Vidgen, lead author of the report and head of online safety at the Alan Turing Institute, said: “Prominent players receive messages from thousands of accounts daily on some platforms, and it wouldn’t have been possible to find all the abuse without these innovative AI techniques.”
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.”
The spokesperson added that the company had not seen the dataset used by the Turing Institute, so could not comment on the tweets referred to in the report.