As we enter the final hours of sport’s four-day online boycott, in protest at the social media giants’ pernicious failure to tackle hate, let’s try imagining an alternative reality. Just as now, it starts with trolls sending racist abuse at, say, Mohamed Salah or Marcus Rashford, or relentlessly attacking a female sports star or commentator. Only, in this parallel universe, a crack team of investigators spring into action.
What might happen next? First the investigators would find out the culprits’ names, telephone numbers, and where they lived. Then the authorities would be alerted. Shortly afterwards, accounts would be closed down. And, in the worst cases, the police would prosecute. Finally, as people began to realise that actions online had actual consequences, many would start modifying their behaviour. The tsunami of online hate might eventually become a sea swell.
A flight of fancy? Perhaps. But it is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Last May investigators at Sportradar, who spend most of their time identifying match-fixing, conducted a pilot scheme at two exhibition tennis tournaments where they tracked down trolls.
Those targeted included Taylor Townsend, who was abused by six trolls because of her skin colour, and a male tennis star who was threatened with physical violence against himself and his girlfriend. In total 44 people sent abusive messages to players during those weeks. Sportradar tracked down 21 of them.
They then alerted the appropriate authorities and helped them pursue an appropriate course of action – from kicking the trolls off social media platforms to working with law enforcement to bring legal proceedings. Of course the response was different depending on the severity of the threat and location. But it helped the victims feel as if someone was watching their backs.