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Social media posts that abuse female athletes can remain unmoderated on the official social media accounts of major sports clubs, new research has shown.

Professor in Business and Computing, Mariann Hardey, has collaborated alongside the University of Stirling Management School, Chester Business School, Bournemouth University and the University of Manchester, to shed new light on concerning trends of gender-based violence and toxic fan behaviour on mainstream social media platforms. 

Over a period of seven months, the research team carried out an extensive analysis of comments responding to posts on the official TikTok accounts of Manchester United and Burnley football clubs. 

The study found that sexist comments were apparent in all TikTok posts containing female football players, with some also containing more aggressive misogynistic comments.

Dr Emma Kavanagh, Associate Professor in Sport Psychology and Safe Sport at Bournemouth University, said: “Globally, women’s football has seen an incredible rise in its profile and popularity in recent years which is obviously very welcome. However, we have found that a toxic culture among so-called fans is still able to thrive, and the fact it can appear on mainstream platforms and official club channels is particularly concerning.”

Dr Wasim Ahmed, digital business specialist, said: “Worryingly, some of the toxic comments we looked at were being 'liked' by other users and attracting further disparaging replies, and appeared to be left unchecked by the clubs at the time. It was clear that the accounts were not being monitored on a regular basis for misogynistic comments or sexualised language. The danger is, then, that such exchanges become part of a tone that is acceptable to clubs and their followers.”

In total the researchers studied the responses to 417 videos about the women’s teams posted on the clubs’ accounts – collectively the videos had over seventy million views and fifty-nine thousand comments. 

The results, published in the journal European Sport Management Quarterly, showed a troubling level of gender-based violence, across four key themes: 

  • Sexism: Belittling the players’ skills and mocking fact that women play football professionally. 
  • Misogyny: Aggressive comments showing hatred and animosity towards the women.
  • Sexualization of women: lurid comments about their appearance, reducing them to mere objects of sexual desire. 
  • A demand for a male-only space: A belief that the club should only share posts about their male players. 

Professor Mariann Hardey reflected the data collection raised pronounced issues of online trauma and abuse that was discussed amongst the research team, said: "We were not initially prepared for the viatorial and targeted abuse we found. As a team, the study allowed us to raise concerns in a safe space, but this reflects a vulnerable space for professional women sports players who are easy to target and attack."

Dr Kavanagh concluded, “This study shows how urgent it is for football clubs to address longstanding issues of toxic fan behaviours. Hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call to clubs and social media platforms to act, for the wellbeing of their players and also to bring a more respectful and inclusive online culture for their fans.” 

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