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What is online abuse?

This step explores the complexity of online abuse and related concepts.
Digital collage illustrating online abuse and trolling.
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This step explores the complexity of online abuse, moving beyond typical examples like hate speech to encompass various harmful behaviours such as cyberbullying, trolling, threats, doxxing, and stalking.

Online abuse is difficult to define. How would you define it? For most people, racist, sexist and homophobic language would come to mind. High profile sporting examples we have shared in introducing this course confirm that instinct. However, these examples are what is referred to as ‘online hate’. The term ‘online abuse’ constitutes and captures more than ‘just’ what can be classified as hate.

The definition

Several terms (such as online abuse, online harassment) are frequently employed to describe a comparable range of behaviours. However, these terms vary in their precise definitions depending on the context and academic background. To ensure clarity, we adopt the term ‘online abuse’, encompassing any harmful behaviours, including but not limited to hate speech, cyberbullying, trolling, threatening, doxxing and stalking, that take place in digital spaces.

Examples of online abuse

Hate speech is defined as ‘spreading, inciting, or promoting hatred, violence and discrimination against an individual or group based on their protected characteristics; which include “race”, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, among other social demarcations’ (Kilvington, 2021a, p. 258). High-profile examples of this are particularly prevalent in football where players are frequently exposed to racist and misogynistic abuse. We are also seeing it increasingly in other sports. For example, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton has been consistently exposed to racist abuse online. Research has predominantly focused on textual posts on forums and now, more commonly, social media platforms. However, it must be acknowledged that hate speech is communicated in more coded forms on social media platforms in order to avoid detection and moderation.

Smartphone on blurred background with TikTok logo on the screen

Furthermore, with the advent of image and video-based social media platforms (e.g. TikTok), more work needs to be done to understand how hate is articulated and evolves via these mediums. This has implications for how it can be detected and moderated.

As stated, online abuse is not confined to hate speech. For example, trolling is a set of behaviours that upset or disrupt individuals and online communities. ‘Trolls’ take pleasure in upsetting others. In online spaces, users typically engage in anti-social behaviour such as flaming (posting personal insults, using vulgar language).

Another example is doxxing. This is where private information is searched for and/or published in public spaces. For a full overview of the types of online abuse that can occur we have put together a glossary which contains definitions and examples of each. You can find this under the further reading section at the end of this week’s content.

Systematic abuse

Regardless of the characteristics or type of abuse, it is important to understand who and where it is coming from. Is it coming from individuals or is there a level of coordination that is evident? Is it motivated by ideology? Are there power imbalances at play that result in cultures of ‘abuse’? These are important questions to consider as we move through the course.

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Online Abuse in Sport

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