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The Online Safety Bill: Calling full time on online abuse in sport?

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Wednesday, 20 September 2023 By Tom Rudkin, Molly-May Keston

The vitriolic online abuse directed towards high-profile athletes in recent years requires no introduction. From the torrent of racist abuse directed at England’s footballers after the Euro 2020 final, to the brutal bullying of Emma Raducanu and the seemingly ever-present misogynistic abuse of female athletes, there has been no shortage of unsavoury incidents.

But why do sporting stars get targeted so often? A recent study examining the triggers for abuse towards athletes found that two events appear to spark a peak in online abuse: poor performance and good performance, with trolls most likely to engage in abusive behaviour during or immediately after high stake sporting competitions which provoke feelings of high anxiety or stress1.

Yet, even when the buzz of a big sporting event dampens, the personal lives of athletes continue to attract abuse, rumour and innuendo, also targeted at their family and friends.

Whilst still recognising the benefits afforded to sports stars through social media (for example, by expanding opportunities for sponsorship, philanthropy and/or fostering meaningful connections with fans) social media giants have been the subject of much criticism for their approach to online abuse. The pervasive nature of this abuse underscores the urgency for a proactive stance by online platforms (such as social media services and search engines). While takedown processes and engagement from the platforms have improved to an extent, there remains much to be done.

Integral to this process is the role of regulation, and the key question on the legislative front is how the Online Safety Bill might shift the goal posts – but there is also a variety of existing legal and practical routes through which athletes can protect their reputations and wellbeing online.

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Written by

Tom Rudkin

Tom Rudkin

Partner - Farrer & Co

Tom provides reputation management and contentious media advice to the full range of Farrer & Co's clients. He is a member of the firm's Sports Group and, as well as assisting sports clients on reputational, media and other sensitive issues, he advises on sports-based disputes, rules and regulations and commercial contracts. Tom's work spans from advising National Governing Bodies to high profile sportsmen and women. He has also spent time in-house on secondment at the Lawn Tennis Association.

Molly-May Keston

Molly-May Keston

Molly-May is an associate at Farrer & Co and advises on a broad range of reputation management and media issues, including privacy, defamation, contentious IP, and data protection. She also handles a wide variety of commercial disputes, with a particular interest in the theatre, television, film, hospitality and leisure, and travel (yachting and aviation) sectors.

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