Social Media is a place where any user can be connected to celebrities, influencers, and any public figure in an instant, but sometimes that connection can come at a cost. One of the most pressing ongoing topics on social media is how to address toxic behaviour and internet trolling, with one particularly prominent group at the forefront of that conversation – professional athletes.
What is internet trolling?
Internet trolling is a form of online aggression. National Online Safety define internet trolling as the sending of abusive, malicious or abusive messaging from one user to another user.
This is where FIFPRO comes in. FIFPRO is a representative body that works with FIFA to advocate on behalf of professional sportspeople. They’ve been working hard on researching and developing ways to make social media a more kind and friendly place for everyone.
Examples of internet trolling in professional sport
In this episode, we’re joined by Alejandro Varsky, FIFPRO’s Head of Communication. We discuss the types of online trolling and toxic behaviour he sees online, its effect on professional athletes and regular users alike, and how in a world where having a public presence online is so important for businesses we can navigate the negativity.
Unfortunately we can not guarantee you or your brand will not fall victim to an internet troll but there are steps you can take if you do. Learn more about how to handle Twitter trolls.
Speakers: Cat Anderson & Alejandro Varsky
Cat: Welcome to Season Two Social Creatures, a podcast from Sprout Social. My name’s Cat, and I’m here to explore some of my favourite success stories from the world of social media.
This is a space for anyone and really, nearly anything goes, but what makes an account successful or popular? Honestly, it’s hard to know, but that is what we’re here to find out.
Throughout the series, we’ll talk with the brands behind some of the best accounts that you know, and some that you don’t yet, to explore the way that these businesses, organisations, and individuals have achieved their success on social media, and crucially, how you can do it too.
The online world of professional athletes is a wonderful place for sports stars to connect with their supporters and build their brand, but it also has a dark side. Online abuse of players seems to be a pervasive problem that can seriously affect the mental health of athletes.
FIFPRO is a representative body that advocates on behalf of professional sports people and is trying to tackle the issue.
We spoke to FIFPRO’s, Head of Communication, Alejandro Varsky, to try and get to the bottom of the issue, and to find out exactly what FIFPRO are doing to create a fairer and less toxic environment for all on and off the pitch.
So, Alejandro, can you tell us about FIFPRO and what it is that you do?
Alejandro: FIFPRO is the global union for professional football players, the trade union. So, as you know, football players are also workers (people tend to forget that) and as such, they have the right to get together, unionise, and negotiate with the employers.
So, each country has its own domestic union that take care of the domestic thing. So, let’s say the PFA in England looks after the players in England, but then you have over 65 unions that then come together as FIFPRO and FIFPRO represents them, and then the players in global issues.
So, basically, just to give you an example, FIFPRO is independent from FIFA, but FIFA recognizes FIFPRO as the official voice of the players. So, when there’s some kind of negotiation that needs to take place, let’s say the international match calendar to say something, the voice of the players is represented by FIFPRO. And my role within FIFPRO is the Director of Communications.
Cat: Wonderful. And that’s interesting that you mention how you work with FIFA because separate, but you do work very hand in hand with them. And you actually used to work at FIFA, didn’t you?
Alejandro: I used to work at FIFA for 19 years, basically like almost my whole career. And yeah, we work hand in hand in some topics, and then we have different discussions in a different tone, as usually happens between employers and employees.
But of course, we recognize each other and we need to work together to make sure that the players get the best outcome, which is in the end, our biggest interest.
Cat: So, diving right into the issue that we’re going to talk about today, obviously, the world of professional sports has a somewhat unique problem in that there are pretty much at all levels, there’s some layers of abuse, and it’s often online abuse.
So, whether this is towards players or referees, managers, pretty much you name it, there’s probably someone out there who has got some sort of dislike for somebody who’s associated with the world of football.
What are the types of things that we’re seeing online directed to players these days?
Alejandro: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned because in football, in sports, but football in particular, happens a lot where people think that it’s right to abuse players. Not only on the online space, also you go to the stadium, and you see that all the time, which doesn’t happen with any other workers.
If you go to see a play in a theatre and you don’t like what you see, you don’t get up and start insulting the actors every time they come on stage. Or if you have a doctor’s appointment and the doctor takes half an hour more to see you than it was planned originally, you don’t do that either.
But when you go to see a player performing and they do something that you don’t like, you immediately, people immediately get up and insult them and abuse them. And I find that very interesting as such. And that is an extension of that, that is a social media, the digital space, as you said, which is no different.
And we as FIFPRO, in 2021, we did a study, across sports study with two other unions: the MBPA and the WNBPA, who are actually the unions that look after the professional players from the NBA and the women’s tournament in the NBPA.
And we monitored for a space of four or five months from May to September ‘21, over 160 accounts of players from both sports; men, women, non-binary players, how many comments, abusive comments these athletes were receiving.
We were looking specifically at messages targeting the players, which means including their handles on social media. And the founding was like horrific, like really horrific. Like not surprising, but once you see the data, it’s really shocking.
And we’re looking at over 160 players from basketball and football and more than 1,500 abusive messages targeting that. So, you do the math on what that means. And then of course, we took different information, and we found different conclusions into these.
So, on how some players or those who actually have or show any solidarity with social issues are targeted the most, it’s really shocking once you get the numbers and you break it down. So, we’re facing a major issue, major problem here.
Cat: It’s so interesting the comparison you made between people don’t shout at their doctors if they’re a few minutes late. Is it something about people being in a crowd, perhaps, or is it just the passion that people have for the sport?
Why do you think people feel the alliance to be able to do this? It feels so against how a human would behave as a singular individual. And yet, as you say, on mass, this seems to be something that is very prevalent. What are your thoughts on that?
Alejandro: I think it happens because it was allowed to happen for too long. So, then you create the habit that it’s fine to do it. Some people say, “Well, I pay my ticket, so I’m allowed to go and just bring out all my frustrations of my daily life.” And I would question that, like why is that?
Then of course, there is something about the masses and the way they behave, people how they behave when they’re in the middle of a crowd. We could read this from many different angles. But the point to me is like the simple answer is because it’s been allowed for too long.
If the pandemic shows something is that football can happen with no fans. It can be a bit boring to watch, it loses a lot, bit can happen. But it cannot happen without the players. So, I think the players, we need to look after the players, and this is a very growing issue that need to be tackled ASAP.
Again, going back to your original question, there are many answers to that, I would stick to it’s been allowed for too long, so people think that’s alright.
Cat: You did mention in your previous answer as well that there is a little bit of a gender. You assess the gender of different players as well, and like how gender played a role in this.
Were there any particular findings there, was there anything that was particularly different for male, female, or non-binary players?
Alejandro: Yeah, absolutely. So, the sample of players that we follow and monitor for that time, men, 80% were discrimination and homophobic. For the women, 90% were sexist and homophobic. And on top of that, there was a lot constant explicit sexual harassment as well, and abuse on social media.
So, our take on that is basically like the online world is just an extension of the existing gender, lack of equality that occurs nowadays. It’s a lot of misogyny, violence against women, and that’s also happening on the social media space.
With the men, you will notice a big increase of spike in abuse when they made a big mistake in a game. Let’s say they missed a key penalty or also around the transfer window when they changed clubs, there is a lot of abuse as well.
On the women, there is a lot just for the fact of being women, which I don’t think it comes as a surprise. But again, as I said at the beginning, once you see the data, it’s not just a feeling, it’s not just a guess. It’s a fact and it’s very alarming.
Cat: Yeah, it’s such a shame to hear because unfortunately, I agree with you, it’s not a huge surprise to hear that, but it’s just so disappointing to hear.
Obviously, FIFPRO is the voice of the players. You must know firsthand then the personal toll that this takes on players. Can you tell us a little bit about how this affects players?
Alejandro: For sure. I mean, and going back to the previous answer, it’s also the players who were, for instance, transgender, we had a few transgender players on the list, and they were abused and targeted specifically on that, which shows that it’s very related to the personality, not even to the sport.
So, we’re looking into more than just performance when we talk about abuse, just to comment on the gender part. And when it comes to the effects, we can talk about many effects, but I think there are three or four that are quite specific.
One is the mental health, basically. It’s not only what you suffer when you go to the pitch now because you have a phone with you, it follows you 24/7. So, if people are abusing you or telling you these kind of things, you see the last thing that you do when you go to bed is probably check your phone.
And the first thing you do when you wake up is to check your phone, and that’s following you wherever you go. So, this creates a lot of issues around mental health. So, anxiety, depression, sadness. I mean, we could go on and on for a while naming this.
And then the other topics, the performance, because of course, the mental health issues affect your performance. There’s no way that you can just switch that off and go and play and perform at your pick.
There is a cover up effect in football that I don’t think this will surprise anyone, but recognizing that you’re having an issue like this puts you in a position that you look weak towards different people in the industry — could be teammates, could be coach, staff, it could be fans.
So, many players cannot even admit that are going through this, which of course, brings all the type of issues connected to it. And we shouldn’t forget if we need to mention the last one, the effect that this has also in families and the people around the players, because this is directed to play, but it affects the whole group here, the whole family and stuff.
So, I think it’s a lot, and as I said before, people tend to forget that football players are first of all workers, and number two, I mean, not because we need to put it in different order, but they’re also human beings.
So, they’re not just immune to this kind of attack. And I would say like we could go on and on, listing the effects, but I think these three or four capture pretty well our main concerns.
Cat: That’s such a good point that you’ve raised because I can imagine people saying like, “Oh, these football players have massive salaries, they’re in the public eye, they must know to expect this,” but how can anyone expect this sort of abuse?
That’s not what football is about. And it doesn’t matter what you’re being paid or if you’re in the public eye, because unfortunately, yeah, it’s just a strange phenomenon.
And I wonder then further to that, they’ve got processes in place that will help protect people’s experiences online. What are social media platforms doing to help these players?
Alejandro: To start with, not enough. Not enough. That’s why organisations like FIFPRO have recently, at the World Cup in Qatar, we partnered up with FIFA to have a proper program of protection and monitoring for football players and other participants of the World Cup in Qatar at the end of 2022, is because it’s not enough what’s in place, it’s very limited.
Just to give you an example, 87% of the abusive messages, we identify and reported in the report with the MBPA and the WNBPA are still online, 87%. So, that shows you that even if there are certain things in place, are not enough, the take down rate should be way higher.
So, we can find different reasons to explain this, but in our opinion, social media lacks viable and worthwhile safeguards. And the very few that are in place in some countries are definitely not enough. That’s why organisations like FIFPRO, FIFA, they need to proactively come out and help.
And this is due to different reasons. Sometimes you can talk about lack of resources, sometimes you can talk about the lack of understanding of different languages or cultural nuances that might happen. There is abuse in all languages — in Spanish, in Portuguese, in Arabic, not only in English. What happens with those other languages? How do you monitor those?
Yeah, just to summarise, I would say things are done but not enough. And probably everybody listening to this, remember Thierry Henry, the former French player, world champion? He at some point in 2021, decided to go off social media.
He shut down his channels and he said something like, “Until social media platforms react the same way they react when you infringe some commercial rights in your account when it comes to discrimination, I will not be back.”
And that’s true, like if you try to post on social media a video that you don’t have the rights for from any of the big leagues in Europe, your account will be shut down immediately. Clearly, there are ways to interact with this in a bigger scope, but it’s not happening.
Cat: Do you think that there are organisational issues? You touched on this, that non-English language content moderation is something that is overlooked. Are there other organisational issues that you see within the different platforms that mean that the support isn’t there? Or what other things do you think are getting in the way?
Alejandro: As I said, it can be different things. It can be the lack of resources, because of course you need a whole team that then reviews … when we report the stuff and we send it to the platform that they need to review and see … if they’re not going to trust a hundred percent, they need to have their own people actually going through the documentation that we send.
Maybe they don’t have the people. As I said, it’s the lack of understanding of the cultural differences and nuances. It can be many things, but again, it’s not only the platforms. Like governments should be doing stuff, authorities in general should be doing stuff, employers should be doing stuff, clubs, the leagues, the federations.
I mean, in the end, the players are representing them as well. And if they have a safe workspace, it’s better for everyone. I do understand to the point that we try to make with the platforms, but I think the scope is even bigger and more actors need to get together to solve this issue.
Cat: Totally. And realistically, as well, the issue isn’t the social media platforms. The issue is how people are using them.
And I always think this is something that it’s quite easy sometimes to point blame at the wrong place because truly, the source of this is terrible behaviour in humans behind screens who think that they’re anonymized and can just say whatever they want.
And unfortunately, it’s at such a volume that it is difficult to get the safeguards in place, as you say. But I absolutely understand what you’re saying, and I think it isn’t completely unique to this situation that there are points where online jurisdiction and legislation is quite hard to define.
We’re starting to see that some laws being made about online behaviour, but I think that’s going to be something that’ll continue to develop, hopefully, in the years to come. And this will be a really good case in point to look at as something which has, as you say, has gone on for far too long.
Tell me where FIFPRO comes in then. So, as a representative body for the players, how do you help protect them from this, and what do you do?
Alejandro: So, in principle, for us, it’s very clear that it shouldn’t be the case that FIFPRO needs to like proactively come and with FIFA, establish this program to protect the players. There should be like a bigger protection safe net for them, for all the athletes in general.
But yeah, we do these reports and say we joined with FIFA and we did also this program during the World Cup, which was not only monitoring and reporting to the different authorities and the different platforms on all the abusive messages that were going to towards the players, we were also hiding them so the players couldn’t see them.
So, kind of try to protect them like that as well. And also, there is a part of education. So, educate the players by our unions for them to understand what they can do in cases like this, what their rights are, who they can go to, how they can deal with this. Because not everybody has the same tools to face an issue like this.
For us, what we did in Qatar with FIFA, it’s kind of like setting the standards for all competitions’ organisers. For us, that’s the key. It should be part of like any future, what we call CBA (collective bargaining agreement) between players and leagues and competitions organisers to make sure that the players have this kind of protection.
Because in the end, I said before, today the players (now we’re talking players, or it could be athletes or whatever) have to be on social media. It’s not much of a choice for them because it’s part of the business as well.
That’s where a lot of commercial transactions are happening, where sponsors come, where they promote or cross-promote what their leagues are doing, what their clubs are doing, what their national teams are doing.
So, as such as an extension of their workspace, and the authorities and other stakeholders, they must ensure that the workspace for players is actually a safe space.
So, FIFPRO, that’s what we come in and we try to help them and navigate that situation, and try to also show and discuss with the different authorities that these should be implemented. But as I said before, we do it practically because the people that should be doing it are not doing it.
Cat: Yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned that obviously sports people are now somewhat commercial entities as well because of brands and partnerships and everything like that, and obviously, social media is a huge part of that, and they have to carry that with them, as you’ve mentioned.
How do you coach people through that? Are you able to also work directly with the brands and to say to them like this is something that we anticipate is going to happen, how are you going to protect this player? Or do you just work primarily with the players in that instance?
Alejandro: No, we work with the players and the unions representing the players. And of course, then we also advocate with authorities to start taking this seriously and try to implement the different laws that can protect the players.
And there are many things that can be done. I don’t want to get too technical, but there are different ways to actually recognize who’s behind each account.
Like if someone has a ticket and it’s in the stadium — let’s say someone has tickets during the World Cup and it can be identified, its account to its ticket, that it’s a person that is actually abusing players during the matches on social media, can something be done?
Same as you would implement to a fun that’s just misbehaving in the stadium. As you said, there is a lot to be done because it’s a new thing — and not that new. But in terms of legislation, it’s becoming now very trendy. But going back to your original question, we work most primarily with the players and the unions that represent the players.
Cat: Do you think that AI could play a part in this in the future? Because I think obviously, AI has got loads of different ways that it can be used, and we are increasingly seeing how it can be used on social media.
For example, I don’t know if you’ve been on Twitter recently, if you share a news story or you share an opinion of something from somebody else’s tweet and they can recognize that you haven’t opened it, they will say, “Hey, do you want to open this news story before you share it?”
And that’s obviously, been a safeguard that’s been put in place to protect against spreading of misinformation. I wonder, with the advent of things like ChatGPT, do you think that with a bit more of an understanding of what language is, that that could be something that could maybe help in the future?
Alejandro: Technology is evolving at crazy pace. Like I think 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. So, for sure, with the technology opportunities come, also risks. If there was no social media, we wouldn’t be talking about abuse on social media, but social media is great for many reasons.
So, I think with all the digital and new tools that come up, now you’re mentioning artificial intelligence. For sure, there will be things that can be done. I’m not exactly sure what that’s going to be like, but ideally, there will be a point where you can actually identify every person behind each account and you can hold them accountable of their act, like as you would do in the real world, so to speak.
But how far that’s going to go, I don’t know. I do think it’s going to be very quick because as I said, like the tools that we’re getting every year, every five years are like incredible. So, hopefully, they will help us to solve this issue.
At the same time, we don’t believe that we need to wait five years or one of these tools to come up. I think we have enough tools now to take action, and we hope that the people that need to take that action, do it as soon as possible.
Cat: I appreciate you saying that social media isn’t all bad because obviously, that is also something that we believe on this podcast. So, I would love to hear how FIFPRO uses social media in the work that you do as well. How does social media factor into your communications and work?
Alejandro: But social media for us at FIFPRO, it’s key. It’s something that I bring with myself as well. When I was working at FIFA, as you mentioned before, I was working on the digital team, at the beginning working on a website like everyone else in early 2000, and then ended up working on social media.
So, for us, it’s key for many reasons. The first one is we are not a massive brand, so we need to face it. Many people outside of the football industry don’t know what we do.
And social media helps us to connect with those people and reaching bigger audiences and different audiences to escape our bubble, our usual bubble of people working, policymakers and football industry and get out there.
Also, to connect with players because we need to understand that we are talking about a very young group of people that are not going to learn or hear about us on reading the newspaper or going on TV, turning on the TV at 9:00 PM to watch the news.
The way they consume content is completely different, so we need to be in those spaces where they are. We’re looking at people who are between 17, 18, and 35, so you name it.
So, we use a lot of our digital platforms. We have a platform strategy implemented in which we treat each platform differently, understanding who’s behind it. So, of course, on Twitter, because our following day is a lot of media, sometimes the approach is a bit more serious and more newsy.
On Instagram, we’re way more fresh if you want, because as we have fans but also players, and we also implement, I don’t know, on Instagram, we use a lot the collaboration to the collab. So, then, we can definitely share our content.
So, let’s say we talk to a player and this player didn’t share the content we did with them, and then all of their fans that maybe didn’t know about us start getting to know us.
So, if a million people see our content and I get 10,000 that understand what we do and follow us, then it’s a big win for us. On LinkedIn, we talk to the industry, so we have a big use of social media, and we consider it crucial for what we do.
Cat: So, it’s not all bad, which is good. I’m glad to hear it’s not all bad.
Alejandro: I love social media, but we need to address also those blind spots just to make it a healthier space for everyone in the end, so more people can enjoy.
Cat: I totally agree. I absolutely agree. In terms of, you mentioned collaborations and stuff as well, and you surely are not the only organisation that exists in the world of sport and beyond, about helping protect the mental health of those in the public eye.
Do you work a lot with other organisations or get together to swap notes or is there any opportunity to do that in the work that you do?
Alejandro: Yeah, yeah. We try to, same as I mentioned, the MBPA or the WNBPA, just to stay in the same topic. We constantly try to find different organisations that can help us in different ways.
Like recently, we launch a collaboration with a company, an organisation that is actually developing some devices to find on time and before something happens, different cardiac problems or issues in athletes.
We’re constantly trying to find different people to partner up with to do things to benefit the players. And we work a lot with data, and we try to work a lot with data because technology gives us a chance to monitor different aspects of the profession, and then come to the table with policymakers and discuss from data, you know what I mean?
Like you can argue about different things, but when you have the data in front of you, it’s more difficult. So, we work with different organisations in different spaces, and we’re taking like big steps, I believe.
Cat: So, Alejandro, in this season of Social Creatures, we are sourcing questions from the industry for some of our guests, and we have one today for you from Scott Sloan from the Olympics Committee.
Scott: Hi Alejandro, my name is Scott Sloan, I’m part of the Safe Sport Unit at the International Olympic Committee.
My question for you today is, can soccer players and the unparalleled platforms that they have be utilised to model more tolerant and safer online spaces? Further, what does FIFPRO advise, or what resources do you provide victims of such abuse?
Alejandro: Yeah, I mean, it’s undoubtedly, we can say that the players have a massive reach and impact by using their own platforms. And I think some players, quite a few players, stars and also some players that are not stars as such have been doing it.
Recently, Mark-Anthony Kaye who’s the player from the Canadian national team, he played the World Cup. He’s also a member of Global Player Council at FIFPRO, was sharing his own story in his platforms and via FIFPRO as well with a campaign. He was abused heavily. He was a victim of that during the workup qualifiers for Qatar a couple of years ago.
So, he shared his story, trying to basically make sure that more people are conscious not only of how it happens, but also the devastating consequences that it brings to the players.
Alejandro: And then you have also other players that do it with a different approach. Like recently, two players from the Premier League in England from Tottenham decided to leave social media like Davinson Sánchez and Pedro Porro, which I think is very interesting.
It’s another way to get a bit of a wave and discussion around it. Independently of what kind of approach these players take, I think, and we think that it’s always important to remember that it’s not their responsibility to do it.
The ones that do it, actually, sometimes what they’re doing is exposing themselves because they get more abuse by doing it, but it’s actually the responsibility of the different platforms and the authorities and the employers, leagues, clubs to be able to protect these players.
When it comes to what FIFPRO is doing to basically deal with this and support the players, we can talk about two different things. What FIFPRO is doing directly, we’re like providing protective online systems for players as it was done at the World Cup in partnership with FIFA. But also, you can say what the unions that are part of FIFPRO are doing domestically.
In here we have like different examples. I mean, two examples that I could give to you. One is the PFA in England. They negotiated with the clubs and the clubs are now creating mental health mechanisms to support the players that are actually abused on social media.
And the union is also developing guidelines for the players so they know how to deal with it when they unfortunately have to face that situation. And then you can have another case like the PFA of Australia that is also very proactive on this.
They create a partnership with the government’s eSafety Office to address exactly the direct instances of abuse. This, on top of it, they also partnered up with an agency that provides a software to protect the players, a software that actually hides the text and report abusive comments that the players might receive.
That’s quite similar to what FIFA and FIFPRO did at the World Cup. Also, the UNFP in France has done the same.
So, I would say that different instances and channels in which FIFPRO is actively trying to mitigate this issue. But as I said at the beginning, it’s something that the industry as such should tackle and not just the unions or the players in isolation.
Cat: If some of our listeners are curious to find out more about FIFPRO or to follow you on social media, where would you direct them to go to?
Alejandro: So, basically, our website is fifpro.org and then on social media, they can find us at FIFPRO in every platform: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. We have plans to launch some other platforms soon.
We’re pretty active there, so anything that they wanna know about how football players live and their rights and the different face to what they see in the stadium every weekend, then they’re more than welcomed to come around.
Cat: You’ve been listening to Social Creatures with me, Cat Anderson. Many thanks to Alejandro for joining me today. If you’d like to learn more about what FIFPRO is getting up to, you can find all the links to their socials in the description of this episode.
And of course, a huge thank you to Sprout Social for making this podcast possible. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to let us know on social media at Sprout Social. Check us out on the web at sproutsocial.com/socialcreatures or subscribe to hear other episodes like this wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks very much for listening, and we’ll see you in two weeks.
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