Raheem Sterling demands ‘proper action’ against online abusers

Raheem Sterling has called on social media companies to “show real leadership and take proper action” against online abuse after a study identified more than 3,000 explicitly abusive messages were sent to Premier League players during Project Restart.

The study – produced by the Professional Footballers’ Association in partnership with the data science company Signify Group and supported by Kick It Out – used machine learning systems to analyse messages sent publicly via Twitter to 44 black and ethnic minority current and former players, 39 from the Premier League, Women’s Super League and EFL and five from Serie A and the Bundesliga. It found that 56% of the discriminatory abuse was racist, with 43% of the Premier League players experiencing racist abuse during the six-week period in June and July.

Sterling was among those in the study. “I don’t know how many times I need to say this, but football and the social media platforms need to step up, show real leadership and take proper action in tackling online abuse,” the Manchester City and England forward said. “The technology is there to make a difference, but I’m increasingly questioning if there is the will.”

The Wycombe Wanderers forward Adebayo Akinfenwa, another player in the study, added: “As someone who has experienced online abuse first-hand and spoken to teammates who have experienced the same, I can say that players don’t want warm words of comfort from football’s authorities and social media giants, we want action. The time for talking has passed.”

Almost 30% of the abuse came in emoji form, which the study found was usually not detected by algorithms designed to intercept abusive messages. This was described as a “blindspot” by the PFA, which has highlighted the issue in meetings with Twitter.

The players’ union and Kick it Out will urge football’s stakeholders and clubs to adopt a centralised system that “collates and submits relevant evidence to the police” and could lead to prosecutions, stadium bans or suspensions within amateur and grassroots football.

“Online abuse is a problem that will not go away without concerted action by the government, football authorities and social media platforms,” said Simone Pound, head of equalities at the PFA.

Sanjay Bhandari, chair of Kick It Out said: “This report confirms what we have known for a while – that social media can be a battleground of hate with few consequences for abusers. We also know that players and the public who witness this hate are victims, who are let down by the cracks in the system. The question is, what do we do about it? We need government, law enforcement, the leagues and clubs to commit to working together to fill in those cracks in the enforcement system.”