The paper, ‘Get back to the kitchen, cos u talk s*** on tv’: gendered online abuse and trigger events in sport, identifies the post-match football commentary from Karen Carney MBE on 29 December 2020 as a ‘trigger event’ and examines the subsequent online abuse directed towards the sports pundit and former footballer.
It explores, through a gendered lens, how online behaviour emerges and evolves during a ‘trigger event’.
Researchers identified five main themes within the online response following the ‘trigger event’; general commentary, critical commentary, humiliation and shaming, gender tropes, and support and defence. Critically, they found that the frames change throughout the course of the event and build to a peak of abusive content, which was emotional and discriminatory in nature. The analysis revealed how emotional maltreatment, such as ridiculing, humiliating and belittling progressed to overt gendered discriminatory abuse over time.
It is hoped the new research will enrich understanding into the forms of online maltreatment and abuse faced by female sport journalists – a group often overlooked in research of this nature – and how these forms of abuse evolve within a ‘trigger event’. This will advance knowledge around possible triggers and patterns of online abuse, heighten awareness around safeguarding and inform future training and educational practices.
Dr Beth Fielding-Lloyd, Principal Lecturer in the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “The research demonstrates how social media abuse can escalate over a very short period of time and that a range of stakeholders in sport need to increase their awareness of trigger events and how to respond to them to avoid harm.”
Dr Lauren Burch, Senior Lecturer in the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough University London, said: “Our research highlighted how moments in sport act as a spark plug for abusive content. Following the success of the Women’s Euros and with the high level of interest in the Women’s World Cup, it is vital to continue to highlight the severity of this problem. With increased interest, comes increased exposure. Content moderation is a critical piece, with FIFA offering their Social Media Protection Service (SMPS) to teams, but we must be aware that this impacts not just athletes, but also a wide variety of sport stakeholders.”
The report recognises that online abuse is becoming a frequent, global occurrence within sport. It draws on the 2020 ‘trigger event’ as a case study: Karen Carney was working with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as a football analyst covering an English Premier League game between Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion for Amazon Prime. During the live broadcast, she said ‘I actually think [Leeds United] got promoted because of Covid in terms of it gave them a bit of respite’, implying the break in play during the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in their promotion from the Championship to the Premier League.
Following her comments, Leeds United’s official Twitter feed tweeted ‘Promoted because of Covid. Won the League by 10 points. Hi @primevideosport’ and included a video clip of Carney delivering the comments, subsequently amplifying the comments to their more than 600,000 followers. She was immediately subjected to targeted online abuse, resulting in Carney deleting her Twitter account after three days. Leeds United publicly condemned the online abuse and deleted their tweet, but never apologised.
The research explored how timing within the ‘trigger event’ added nuance to how the specific types of virtual abuse evolved, building in vitriol the longer the event progressed. As the emotional element heightened, an abusive echo chamber and ‘waves’ of online abuse emerged. Through timeline analysis, it was illustrated how individuals began the progression of abusive content, and then through depersonalisation and group norms, others contributed to the abuse. The result is sustained, highly emotionally abusive and discriminatory rhetoric designed to inflict psychological distress on an individual until they apologise or remove themselves from the platform.
The findings support the need for increased awareness of the characteristics and implications of ‘trigger events’ in sports, to inform future social media and safeguarding strategies. The report states that organisations could develop strategic plans and policies to identify abusive content early within a ‘trigger event’, such as when emotional content becomes prevalent, and then communicate to individuals that abusive content will not be tolerated, to demonstrate support and mitigate further abuse.