Photo: Harry Kane (centre) and Raheem Sterling (front) have been two of the main targets for abuse. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters
England’s footballers have been subjected to sustained abuse online during their matches at Euro 2020, an exclusive analysis by the Guardian can reveal.
A study of Twitter messages directed at and naming the England team during the three group stage matches identified more than 2,000 abusive messages, including scores of racist posts.
The research, conducted in association with the anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate, illustrates the shocking levels of hatred, directed by hundreds of individuals at a time, at captain Harry Kane, forward Raheem Sterling, other England players and the manager, Gareth Southgate.
Across England’s three group games against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic the Guardian identified 2,114 abusive tweets directed towards or naming the players and Southgate. This included 44 explicitly racist tweets, with messages using the N-word and monkey emojis directed at black players, and 58 that attacked players for their anti-racist actions, including taking the knee.
With parameters set only for the five hours around a match, there were also examples of antisemitic and ableist abuse, with nationalist messages and more insidious racial content also visible. The players’ decision to continue taking the knee at the start of matches, and its perceived association with the Black Lives Matter movement, was also a consistent target for criticism.Quick Guide
Research into online abuse of England footballers: methodology
The Guardian collaborated with Hope Not Hate to identify online abuse on Twitter directed at the England team in Euro 2020. The data was collected by Hope Not Hate using the Twitter API for one hour prior to, during and two hours after each England match.
The process captured all tweets mentioning player’s Twitter handles (e.g. “@MarcusRashford”), their full names (“Marcus Rashford”), surnames (“Rashford”) and nicknames (e.g. “Mase” in relation to Mason Mount). This also captures replies to posts mentioning players’ handles (a reply including the term “@MarcusRashford”).
All tweets were gathered into a SQL database in real time and updated until approximately 24 hours after each match, ensuring the capture of tweets as they were posted and reflecting how often a tweet was liked or retweeted in the hours after it was published. All tweets and replies were exported into a CSV file and shared with the Guardian, with a total of more than 585,000 tweets across all three matches.
The Guardian’s team identified 4,505 potentially abusive tweets using keywords, including abusive and racist terms as well as emojis.The tweets were extracted and categorised based on keyword lists using the command line. The tweets including abusive terms were then reviewed by a team of journalists to determine if the abuse was being expressed towards the team, reducing the final list to more than 2,000 tweets.
The HOPE not hate campaign was founded in 2004 to provide a positive antidote to the politics of hate.Hope Not Hate
Non-English language posts were also collected in order to ensure all tweets and replies including those with hyperlinks were captured, however only English language tweets were included in the final analysis. All potential identifiers for team members were not included and a number of posted tweets may not have been collected, meaning the final figure is likely an undercount of the actual abuse posted on Twitter.Was this helpful?
The type of abuse is illustrated when comparing Kane and Sterling, two of the main targets for abuse. Kane is white and Sterling is black and the racist element to the abuse directed at Sterling is significant.
Both have played all three matches. Sterling’s selection for the first match in particular was contentious in some quarters but he has scored both England’s goals in the Euros so far. During the tournament Kane is regarded as having struggled to find form. Against Croatia the players received similar volumes of abuse. In this match, 10% of the messages directed at Sterling were explicitly racist. In the second game against Scotland, where there were no goals and Kane was substituted in the second half, Sterling received more abuse than Kane. However, in the third match, where Sterling again scored the only goal, Kane received more abuse than Sterling.
Overall Kane received 506 abusive tweets and Sterling 430. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Jordan Pickford and Tyrone Mings also received high volumes of abuse. The most targeted individual of all, however, was Southgate. The England manager was the focus of more than 700 messages.Advertisement
England topped Group D without conceding a goal and will play Germany in the last 16 on Tuesday at Wembley.
The Guardian’s findings will prompt questions for Twitter which, along with other social media companies, has come under sustained pressure to tighten up its response to abuse on its platform. The FA, alongside the Premier League, the campaign group Kick It Out and other footballing bodies have repeatedly demanded action, including faster removal of offensive content and the ability to more easily identify offenders.
In April the English football community, and media organisations including the Guardian, boycotted social media for four days to draw attention to the problem.
The data analysed by the Guardian was collected by Hope Not Hate and based on more than 585,000 posts that include players names, nicknames and Twitter handles during matches and included tweets posted one hour before, during, and two hours after each England match. The Guardian identified 4,505 potentially abusive tweets using a list of abusive and racist terms and emojis, which were then manually reviewed and verified by a team of journalists.
As well as direct abuse, there were other more insidious messages that sought to challenge the players on their support for racial equality or dispute the taking of the knee. There was also, however, a large number of posts confronting the boos heard in Wembley Stadium when the players made their protest. The irony of the same fans who booed later cheering when Sterling scored England’s first goal in the tournament was one of the most commonly repeated messages. Tweets that supported the players and called out abuse were also much more likely to be retweeted or liked.
Patrik Hermansson, a researcher at Hope Not Hate said: “Online abuse and specifically racist abuse is a serious issue. Even if it’s a relative minority of the content it can have a large impact on the direct victim but also others who observe it online. This means a single post causes harm wider than just the single person it’s targeting.
“Social media like Twitter attract this sort of abuse because of its encouragement of quick and emotive reactions and feeling of anonymity. Since this exact issue has been given attention before, Twitter is well aware of the issue and should do more to combat it. Those solutions need to include both faster moderation and more fundamental design changes of their service that discourages or limits the ability to post by for example newly created accounts on contentious issues.”
Twitter has encouraged brands to use Euro 2020 as a marketing opportunity on its platform, by using key moments such as goals during matches to promote sponsored tweets. A spokesperson for Twitter said the platform was committed to combating abuse through its policies and enforcement actions using “machine learning-based automation and human review”, and a review by the Guardian indicated explicit racist abuse had been taken down by Twitter at the time of publication.
“Today, we proactively surface more than 50% of abusive content we remove, reducing the burden on individual people on Twitter. Our work will never be done and our product, policy and engineering teams continue to work at scale and pace to build a healthier Twitter,” the spokesperson added.
Sanjay Bhandari, the chair of Kick It Out and of the Football Online Hate Working Group, said: “The findings from this research are saddening because they are so grimly predictable. Abuse and discrimination aimed at minorities and their allies have become sadly normalised on social media to the point where a piece of hate is taken down every second of every minute of every hour of every day, 365 days a year.