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Challenges in tackling online abuse

In this step, we explore three critical challenges in addressing online abuse: anonymity, jurisdictional issues, and enforcement.
Vector illustration of concept of online abuse, social media hate, anonymity.
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In this step, we explore three critical challenges in addressing online abuse: anonymity, jurisdictional issues, and enforcement.

Anonymity

One of the key characteristics of the Internet is its capacity to provide anonymity to its users. Identification is not required for most social media platforms. Although impersonation is challenged, anonymity in some form is typically allowed. Arguments can be made that there is a value to anonymity in terms of human rights, particularly for dissidents and, for example journalists that work in areas of conflict.

However, research consistently shows the impact of what we call the disinhibition effect of anonymity. When there is a lack of social accountability, individuals are more likely to engage in online abuse. Hence, anonymity is frequently identified as a central issue in the media discourse concerning online abuse in sport.

Research into online abuse in sport supports this narrative (see Kilvington, 2021), however other research (see Sanderson et al., 2010) argues that anonymity is important for cultivating online environments that encourage freedom of speech. Also, transparency alone cannot curb online abuse. For example, in the Euro 2020 case involving three black English soccer players, Twitter (2021) released a statement to say that 99% of the users removed from their platform for racist abuse were identifiable.

The Defamation Act of 2013 (England and Wales) recommends that Internet intermediaries ‘know the identities of their users’. However, it also raises questions about surveillance and civil liberties. Internet intermediaries have to operate with this in mind at the same time as ensuring that their users are not exposed to criminal behaviour in the form of for example, hate speech or harassment.

Jurisdictional issues

One of the key characteristics and features of the Internet is the global nature of it; the opportunities it provides to connect with people from other countries instantaneously. This is something to be celebrated in sport, particularly during major international events. For example, fans from all over the world can come together to share their passion for sport, enhancing the sporting experience.

However, as you have no doubt learned by now; engagement can also mean online abuse. Online abuse is not necessarily going to be limited to one country or region, and to further complicate things the platform on which the abuse occurs may not be incorporated within your country. It should be expected that every democratic state receives cooperation from Internet intermediaries in detection and prosecuting of online abuse. However, that can be difficult and there is always going to be uncertainty around the ability of courts to prosecute offenders from countries with different legal interpretations, whether they be individual members of the public or the actual publishers of the online abuse.

Cooperation and detection practices then have to be internationally focused, whether that is through international treaty or the practices of the major global Internet intermediaries. That is easier said than done.

Enforcement issues

Although police forces have invested significantly in the area of cybercrime (including online hate crimes), there is still a significant lack of capacity to investigate complaints. Salter (2017) argues that the sheer scale of online abuse facilitates a culture in which there is then a lack of motivation to do anything at all about it. Users often encounter widespread disinterest and a lack of understanding from law enforcement when reporting clearly illegal forms of online abuse, such as rape or death threats. Although many types of online abuse are covered by existing laws, they are often not enforced. This highlights the urgent need for enhanced training of law enforcement officers to recognise and address online abuse, as well as increased investment in resources for investigating and prosecuting such cases.

This is even more problematic for subcriminal cases that may not meet the threshold of criminal. As Shanley Kane, founder and CEO of Model View Culture, an independent media platform that addresses diversity in online culture and technology, put it: ‘There’s the constant background, opportunistic, low-grade harassment – responses to my tweets that are deliberately using hate speech, sexist slurs and words, or juvenile trolling’ (quoted in Gandy, 2014). The fact that such abuse may not meet a criminal threshold does not mean it does not exert individual or collective effects.

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Online Abuse in Sport

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