AI Tools Block Online Abuse Directed at Soccer Stars

07 June 2023

Some companies have created artificial intelligence (AI) tools to block abusive comments directed at professional soccer players.

The tools are aimed at limiting abusive messages about race and other issues targeting soccer players on social media.

A British organization that campaigns against discrimination in soccer, called Kick It Out, said racism is the most common form of abuse reported on social media. The group's finding is based on data collected over the past three seasons in English soccer.

England players comfort teammate Bukayo Saka during the Euro 2020 soccer championship final match between England and Italy at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, July 11, 2021.(Carl Recine/Pool Photo via AP, File)
England players comfort teammate Bukayo Saka during the Euro 2020 soccer championship final match between England and Italy at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, July 11, 2021.(Carl Recine/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Soccer's governing body, FIFA, released a report on the problem last year. The report said more than half of players taking part in two major competitions in 2021 received some form of abuse on social media. The competitions were the African Cup of Nations and the European Championship.

FIFA found that more than one third of 400,000 social media posts about soccer players were described as racial abuse.

Black French soccer star Kylian Mbappe has 104 million followers on Instagram and more than 12 million followers on Twitter. He was the subject of racial abuse along with Black teammate Kingsley Coman after their French national team lost in the 2022 World Cup final to Argentina.

Real Madrid player Vinícius Júnior, who is also Black, has been the target of racial insults. But he is still active on social media with 38 million followers on Instagram and nearly 7 million on Twitter.

Another Black player who has been targeted online is Bukayo Saka, who plays for Premier League team Arsenal as well as Britain's national team. Saka has more than 1 million followers on Twitter. He remains on social media even after receiving abuse over England's loss in the Euro 2020 competition.

A few weeks ago, a message targeting Saka was posted on Twitter. The message showed Saka with his face made to look like a monkey, along with the words: "This clown has cost us the league." Minutes before the message was posted, Saka had missed a penalty in an important Premier League game.

Players and teams say they want to remove insults and racial abuse from social media. British technology company GoBubble aims to block comments considered discriminatory.

The company's founder, Henry Platten told The Associated Press the current problems were made possible by technology. But he added, "Tech can actually solve the issue, and this is what we are seeing as one of those pieces of the jigsaw."

GoBubble's AI technology tool is linked to players' social media accounts. The tool searches for harmful words, images, and abusive messages, which it can block.

Official bodies are reacting to the problem as well. During last year's World Cup in Qatar, FIFA and players' organization FIFPRO used a special moderation service to block racist and abusive posts from being seen online by players and their followers. The same service will be offered for the upcoming Women's World Cup.

In 2021, soccer officials in England led a four-day social media boycott against Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The move aimed to protest the companies' moderation and enforcement efforts against online abuse.

Activists accuse Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and Twitter of being too slow to block racist comments, remove violators' accounts, and change verification methods. Verification can make it more difficult for banned users to sign up for new accounts.

Mark Bright is a former Black player in Britain's Premier League who remembers suffering racial abuse at stadiums during the 1980s. He told the AP he thinks social media companies need to be regulated by the government. He believes the companies should be punished for any harm caused by their services.

"Everyone's been complaining about this for a long time now," Bright said. He added, "Some players have set up meetings with these social media companies. It seems to me that they're not serious enough about it."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

penalty – n. an advantage given to a team when the opposing team has broken a rule

jigsaw n. a picture in many small pieces that you put together as a game

moderate – v. to make sure the rules of an internet discussion are not broken

verify – v. prove that something is true

regulate – v. to control an activity or process, especially by rules

complain – v. express unhappiness or opposition about something