Athlete safety in focus: World Athletics confronts growing online abuse with new data

December 23, 2023  -World Athletics has released the findings of its third comprehensive study on online abuse, shedding light on the alarming increase in abusive and threatening behavior directed at athletes during major sporting events.

The study, conducted during the World Athletics Championships in Budapest in 2023, focused on identifying and addressing abusive content on the X and Instagram social media platforms.

The research analyzed 449,209 posts and comments posted in 16 different languages and dialects between August 18 and 28, aiming to protect 1,344 athletes with 1,666 active accounts across both platforms. This analysis utilized text and image recognition tools to detect abusive content, including slurs, phrases, and offensive images.

 Distressing trends

The study uncovered distressing trends:

  • X (formerly Twitter) was the primary platform for abusers, accounting for nearly 90% of detected abuse, marking a 500% relative increase compared to 2022.
  • Racist abuse constituted over one-third of all abuse, with a 14% increase compared to the previous year.
  • Male athletes experienced a rise in abuse, with 51% targeting men and 49% targeting women.
  • Two athletes received 44% of all recorded abuse, highlighting the disproportionate targeting of specific individuals.

World Athletics CEO Jon Ridgeon expressed concern over the prevalence of online abuse and emphasized the organization’s commitment to protecting athletes both on and off the field. He called for urgent meetings with social media platforms to enhance enforcement and safeguarding measures, particularly in anticipation of the heightened scrutiny that accompanies an Olympic year.

The study’s findings revealed a significant increase in abuse compared to the prior year’s study conducted during the World Athletics Championships in Oregon22. The majority of racist abuse occurred on X and disproportionately targeted black athletes, often involving derogatory language and imagery.

Third in a series of research initiatives

This study represents the third in a series of research initiatives by World Athletics, conducted over four years to understand the extent and seriousness of online abuse faced by athletes during major sporting events. The data collection will culminate in a fourth study at the Paris Olympic Games in 2024, encompassing two Olympic Games and two World Athletics Championships.

To address the issue, World Athletics has taken several steps:

  • Reporting abusive posts to platforms and tracking their removal status.
  • Investing in additional systems, including artificial intelligence (AI), to protect athletes from online abuse and prevent their followers from exposure to hate speech.
  • Providing platforms with additional data to improve athlete protection and coverage.
  • Collaborating with platforms to educate athletes and stakeholders on online best practices and safety.
  • Sharing findings with broader research projects targeting hate speech in sports.

World Athletics plans to explore the correlation between media coverage and online comments received by athletes, aiming to further protect and promote athletes in 2024 and beyond. Detailed actions resulting from this research will be disclosed in due course.

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