How soccer players and athletes are using AI to fight online hate

Racial discrimination and slurs against sports persons are rampant on social media.
Sejal Sharma
Online hate speech
Online hate speech

Lincold Beddoe/iStock 

If there’s one Olympic moment etched into our memories, it is the 1968 Black Power Salute which saw African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium raising their gloved hands in solidarity with oppressed Black people worldwide.

What followed was their ostracization from the U.S. sports institutions, racial abuse, and worldwide condemnation and vilification back home.

One would think that 55 years later, the tables would have turned. That addressing sportsmen and sportswomen with racial slurs was a matter of a bygone era. But that’s hardly the case.

Now we have social media. The racial abuse, condemnation, and vilification have followed black athletes online.

A 2022 FIFA report titled ‘AI Monitoring: Protecting Professional Players’ analyzed 406,987 social media posts on Twitter and Instagram and found that over 55% of players in the finals of EURO 2020 and AFCON 2022 received some form of discriminatory abuse. Homophobic slurs were most common, followed by racial slurs.

Racial discrimination is not only limited to online commentary but has been witnessed in how sports commentators talk about a white sportsperson's athletic ability vs. a black athlete’s.

Mohit Iyyer, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, conducted a study in 2019 where he applied artificial intelligence to analyze how sports commentators demonstrate bias when they discuss athletes from different racial backgrounds.

His study found that broadcasters spoke about natural ability when discussing non-white players. This reinforces an old sports trope: Black athletes owe their success to “God-given” talent rather than hard work, as per a report.

But now the athletes are fighting back

Emotion AI is a machine learning software by UK-based GoBubble, which acts as a filter to stop discriminatory comments from being seen by a social media user. Their website says that they have customers ranging from the Premier League football clubs to the gaming industry, which use their tools to help create a safer digital environment and, in tandem, support their mental well-being.

“Yes, tech has caused the issue,” GoBubble founder Henry Platten told the Associated Press. “But tech can actually solve the issue, and this is what we are seeing as one of those pieces of the jigsaw.”

The company’s AI technology is plugged into players’ accounts and scans for toxic and potentially harmful words, images, and other types of messages that can be filtered out using a traffic-light system, said the report.

“This isn’t about censorship, about sportswashing, about creating that fuzzy world,” Platten said. “This is about protection, not just for the players and their families but also the wider fan community.”

Platten told AP that some of their clients, who are football players, had experienced mental health issues that impacted their performances. The report further said that in January, Liverpool became the first Premier League club to hire a mental health consultant to protect young players from online abuse.

There are other ways in which the athletes are fighting racial criticism. A social media blackout in 2021 was organized by soccer authorities in England, including the Football Association, English Football League, Premier League, Women’s Championship, Women’s Super League, and other governing bodies.

But inflammatory comments run unabated on social media.

“It needs to be regulated, you need to be accountable,” said former soccer player Mark Bright in an interview with AP. “Everyone’s been complaining about this for a long time now. Some players have set up meetings with these social media companies. It seems to me that they’re not serious enough about it.”

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