We live in an age of rampant online abuse, a modern-day world in which people can anonymously spread derogatory, harmful and offensive language and its receiver can do little apart from calling it out or calling the police.
In the sporting sphere this is a regular occurrence, so much so that Liverpool in January became the first Premier League club to hire a mental health consultant tasked specifically with protecting young players from the trauma of online trolling.
Tracking a troll can be next to impossible, especially when social media companies do little to weed out the malicious content being spread on their platforms.
Frustrated sporting bodies have tried to force action; last year the world of English professional football united for an unprecedented four-day social media boycott to protest at the continued abuse and racism aimed at players.
So Australian football has taken matters into its own hands, with the A-Leagues and players’ union announcing they will – in what they say is a sporting world first – use new artificial intelligence software which acts as a filter to stop racist, homophobic, sexist and other harmful comments from ever being seen by the players and their copious followers.
The automated machine-learning technology, created by British company GoBubble, will monitor the social media accounts of every A-League Men and A-League Women player and act as a filter for offensive content including words, images and emojis. The content will be identified and blocked to the player and their followers. While it will still be visible to the sender’s followers, the objective is to strip them of their intended audience and generally decrease their reach.
The announcement follows a successful trial by the leagues and Professional Footballers Australia on the weekend of 25-26 February, when the GoBubble Community software was used on the Twitter profiles of Adelaide United, Melbourne Victory and Central Coast Mariners, the clubs participating in the inaugural Pride Game.
That double-header was set in motion by Adelaide’s Josh Cavallo, who was praised globally last year when he became the only openly gay professional top-flight men’s footballer in the world, but has also since become the subject of homophobic abuse and even death threats. Other players, including Kusini Yengi and Bernie Ibini, have also been targeted.
“These days we often find the cheapest seats in the house are behind a keyboard, with players being subjected to terrible online abuse in the course of doing their jobs,” said eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant. “Back in November last year we met with some of the biggest sporting codes in the country and pledged to work together to do more to protect players, coaches and support staff from online abuse.”
Among the 24 organisations to have met with eSafety and signed a statement of commitment were from rugby, the NRL, AFL, netball and cricket.
“The A-League is taking the lead to roll out use of this technology across all clubs, and we now hope to see this approach replicated by sports governing bodies across the globe,” said GoBubble founder, Henry Platten. “This powerful step will protect teams, players and communities from online abuse, and promote a positive and supportive virtual experience across their social channels.”