Racist abuse of footballers on Twitter increased over the course of the 2020-21 season and the majority of offending accounts are still active on the platform, research by the Professional Footballers’ Association has found.
More than six million tweets were analysed in a year-long study that identified 359 accounts as sending explicitly racist abuse to players, with the volume of abuse rising by 48% in the second half of the season.
As of July 2021, according to the PFA, more than three-quarters of the accounts were still active. Racism formed a small section of the broader abuse, with the PFA reporting 1,674 accounts to Twitter for offensive content.
Of those accounts, 367 were verified as belonging to individuals who were fans, members or season-ticket holders at UK football clubs. The statistics are consistent with research conducted by the Guardian into the extent of abuse directed towards the England squad during this summer’s European Championship.
The new chief executive of the players’ union, Maheta Molango, said the fact that so many abusers are identifiable means platforms have no excuse for not taking action. “The time has come to move from analysis to action,” Molango said.
“The PFA’s work with [the data analysis company] Signify clearly shows that the technology exists to identify abuse at scale and the people behind offensive accounts. Having access to this data means that real-world consequences can be pursued for online abuse. If the players’ union can do this, so can the tech giants.”
The message was repeated by Troy Deeney, the Watford captain, who was recently appointed to the PFA’s players’ board as part of a wide-ranging restructure of the organisation. “Social media companies are huge businesses with the best tech people,” Deeney said. “If they wanted to find solutions to online abuse, they could. This report shows they are choosing not to. When is enough, enough?”
It is possible to search the contents of Twitter because the company makes its application programming interface (API) public. This is not possible on other platforms, where widespread abuse also routinely occurs.
A Twitter spokesperson said: “It is our top priority to keep everyone who uses Twitter safe and free from abuse. While we have made recent strides in giving people greater control to manage their safety, we know there is still work to be done.”
Molango joined the PFA last month, replacing Gordon Taylor after his 40 years at the top of the organisation. The former Brighton, Lincoln and Grays striker has also acted as a legal representative to Atlético Madrid and was more recently CEO of Real Mallorca. He was appointed as part of an independent process recommended by an external review into the PFA’s governance. The review was commissioned after an outcry over Taylor’s then £2.3m salary and the union’s failure to get to grips with serious issues such as dementia among former players.
The contents of the review, which were handed to the PFA leadership over a year ago, have yet to be published. Molango said he could not commit to doing so, before discussions with the players’ board and the PFA’s “operational” board, but said the report was an “important milestone” for the organisation.
Molango has embarked on an introductory tour of English football, starting with the National League play-off final and taking in 11 Premier League sides to date, to better understand the needs of his new organisation. He lists dementia and neurodegenerative disease alongside the demands of increased fixtures as two key issues.
“You’re not a machine, you’re a human being,” Molango said. “Sometimes the machine says no and that’s my concern. I think this also affects the quality of what we see [on the pitch]. I want the players to actually show their best version because they’re fresh enough and fit enough to show it. If you play every three days, it’s just impossible.”
Molango said he was ready to sit down with the EFL to discuss ways of lowering costs after Taylor’s PFA took the Football League to court, and won, over the issue of a wage cap. He also said the PFA was supportive of its members becoming vaccinated against Covid-19 but that “our role is to contribute to the education” of the players in making a decision.