Celebrated on the pitch, vilified online: FIFA uses AI to tackle down online misogyny

The rise of women’s football has sparkled harassment and sexism online

During the celebration of the Women’s World Cup, thousands of Australians connected with ‘soccer’ like never before (Snape, 2023). “I’m at the pub, watching the Matildas!”, text a friend of mine, “It is the first time I watched an entire game”. Certainly, the stardom of the Matildas was not an overnight success, but the joy lived on the pitch, grandstands or even into the special train to the Olympic Park turned to bitterness with thousands of misogynistic commentaries online after their defeat against England in the semi-finals. Yet, the defender Ellie Carpenter had to close her comments sections on social media and Socceros captain recalled the harassment as a “vile misogynistic garbage” (Lewis, 2023). 

Unfortunately, the eruption of online sexism is not new to female athletes. After the Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia Women’s World Cup, FIFA and FIFPRO, –players global union–, revealed more than 150 players were targeted; one-in-five during the competition that took place last July and August (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024, p. 6). Thanks to an artificial intelligence’s tool more than 102K post went to human review resulting 7.085 being considered discriminatory, mainly coming from X (formerly Twitter) (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024, p. 8).

This online abuse was mainly sexist or homophobic. According to FIFA’s report “homophobia was prolific, with almost twice % vs FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022” (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024, p. 6), the men’s counterpart. As McPerson and & Kerr highlighted on a study in 2020: “Gender of professional athletes influences the nature of shaming practices directed at athletes in responses to their norm transgressions” (McPerson & Kerr, 2020, p. 8). Furthermore, misogynistic views prevailed among the fans (Phipps, 2023, p. 4223), but is not solely a football problem. Only in Australia, in 2017, The Herald Sun closed the comments on Women’s AFL coverage due ‘constant trolling’ and ‘harassment’ (Wood, 2020), an a recent study has found that 665 out of 5,133 (12.9%) of the commentaries in 18 YouTube videos form skateboarding were misogynistic (McCarthy, 2022, p. 369).

Source: FIFA social media protection service

During the past decades, the use of social media has skyrocketed in sports industry. Kavanagh, Litchfield and Osbone observe the rise of social media has brought opportunities like “self-representation, empowerment, freedom of speech and a platform for advocacy” (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023, p. 4). In their paper, McPerson and Kerr expose similar views in terms of self-stem, social activism and social connections (McPerson & Kerr, 2020, p. 1), but “findings revealed that fans possessed contentious views on gender that should be considered within broader rape culture context” (McPerson & Kerr, 2020, p. 5).

Women athletes, FIFA and social media

A recent survey made by FIFPRO, 96% of female footballer reported “being active on social media” (FIFPRO, 2020). “We have to do more in general”, said US star Alex Morgan speaking about equal pay, “we have to be the athlete, we have to be the role model, we have to led the way for the next generation” (Ann, 2014). An statement that seems to be generalized within athletes’ attitudes online because only 1% affirmed they use social media to gain financial incomes, whereas 84% assume they do it for personal visibility or promoting the sport (79%) (FIFPRO, 2020, p. 80).

But nevertheless, women’s game has had to confront intolerance and online acts of violence in a greater way than men do. McPerson & Kerr (2020) argue in the present context characterized by populism, sexism, racism and xenophobia, as well as, misinformation “ contagion of negative interactions has been sparked the social media” (McPerson & Kerr, 2020, p. 7). Similarly, Fenton et al. observe how “social media allows inflated gender-based violence against high-profile women in the workplace, unlike conventional sorts media” (Fenton, Ahmed, Hardey, Boardman, & Kavanagh, 2023, p. 6), with language or behaviors that would be considered unacceptable in any other offline space (Phipps, 2023, p. 4222).

UEFA Euros’ match, Norway-The Netherlands. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Therefore, after tackling down violence in the stadiums FIFA and FIFPRO decided to move towards online violence and in 2022 decided to “join forces to combat social media hate speech” (FIFPRO, 2020). This partnership allowed to create for a first time a “dedicated in-tournament moderation service” called Matrix Threat to detect and reduce de visibility of hate speech on social media (FIFPRO, 2020). Resulting, during the last World Cup in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, 2,111 accounts were monitored including 679 players and coaches (with 1,805 active accounts), 29 officials (37 accounts), 32 teams (202 accounts), 35 former players  and media (63 accounts) and 4 tournament accounts (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024, p. 4)

Used firstly during the Men’s World Cup Qatar 2022 and then during Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia’s Women World Cup, they found depicted the volume of total online comments detected were more than the double to men’s game, women are 29% more likely to be target with online abuse (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024, p. 14).

Welfare and social media 

One of the main reasons FIFA and FIFPRO argued to join forces was mental well-being and reputation to create safe spaces for fans and professionals. “This type of abuse has profound impact on their personalities, their families, performance as well as on their overall well-being and mental health”, affirmed FIFPRO president, David Aganzo, during the presentation of the Threat Matrix (FIFPRO, 2020), a view backed by evidences. In their study of ‘Social media and Athlete Welfare’, professors Kavanagh, Litchfield and Osborne recalled the negatives impacts on athletes could include self-steam, sleep disturbances or even affect the performance on the field (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023).

Furthermore, the online abuse exposes a “significant challenge to brand values” (Fenton, Ahmed, Hardey, Boardman, & Kavanagh, 2023), undermining the positive messages launched by the organizations and stigmatizing LGTBQI+ athletes (McCarthy, 2022, p. 375). FIFA and FIFPRO might have decided to challenge online misogyny because it is aligned to their own commercial and reputational interests too. Thus, if players, clubs and bodies show tirelessly messages towards equity and non-discrimination, how that could match with and “unchecked misogyny allowed to flourish online that begets itself” (McCarthy, 2022, p. 376)?

It was probably a matter of time that FIFA understood commercial moderation like other bodies have done in sport like the International Tennis Federation or World Athletics (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023, p. 11) . “AI platforms such as Threat Matrix certainty offer the potential to shift the balance of power and such measures have gone some way to move the onus for online safety away from the individual athlete toward the club and governing bodies” (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023, p. 13) affirmed Kavanagh, Litchfield and Osborne in their work. 

Since, it seems clear that evidences point out online abuse disproportionally affects women (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023, p. 8), social media is used to scrutiny women’s body and feminity (Phipps, 2023), replicates hegemonic hierarchies trough acts of manhood (McCarthy, 2022), barriers to gender equity (McPerson & Kerr, 2020) or devalue in women’s achievements as mere sex symbols (Fenton, Ahmed, Hardey, Boardman, & Kavanagh, 2023), these scholars remind it is the duty of sports organization and clubs to protect fans and athletes against discrimination (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023), but the nuclear question is how.

Moderation to protect business and employees

Germany against Serbia in the Euro’s classification. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The highest concentration of discriminatory commentaries during the last World Cup were when US Women’s Team lost in the penalty against Sweden. Even president Biden was contested with misogynist content over her message of support (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024).  Professor Terry Flew recognizes hate speech and its amplification trough social media as a major issue of concern (Flew, 2021), signaling how “in a number of high-profile cases, online harassment has evolved into hate speech in a larger scale” (Flew, 2021, p. 91), as suffered by the US athletes.

During the tournament Threat Matrix observed that North America and Central America concentrated the 67% of discriminatory and abusive content, followed by Europe (21%) (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024, p. 7). Yet, it is a problem of global scale. In 2017 Amnesty International completed a survey finding nearly 23% women has received online abuse across 8 countries, resulting in health problems (Amnesty International, 2017). 

According to Flew’s view, the traditionally policy to protect ‘free speech’ in online platforms, “needs to be considered modify in the current legal, regulatory and business environment” (Flew, 2021, p. 91), something that had caught the attention of many governments and institutions but is far to be solved on the light of recent FIFA’s data. Although, FIFA and FIFPRO has taken action based on their own initiative.

Their Threat Matrix operates on the base of commercial moderation, nothing strange to the platforms itself. It is well documented by scholars like Sarah T. Roberts that Meta and others use moderation and screening in order to pursue their “corporate platform brand”, providing brand protection, legal compliances and site guidelines (Roberts, 2019). As she expresses, companies are doing this job as a “unpleasant necessity” (Roberts, 2019, p. 38) on a large industrialized scale around the globe. 

More worrying, Lorna Woods and William Perrin (2022) reveal how the internal architecture is based on a maximization of the revenue, signaling platforms do not have proven any interest in content moderation unless that affects profits. They, also qualified the design of the platform as not neutral and suggest that “[put] responsibility on companies to design services safely, work better” (Woods & Perrins, 2022, p. 94).

Far from any legal reform, FIFA and FIFPRO implanted a safety net similar to what platforms have developed, including AI to flag and human-decision to dismiss what is discriminatory and what it is not, hiding it from the players and staff, reducing visibility on the platforms (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024). As Roberts writes “it introduces the existence of human-decision makers unknown and unseen by the vast majority of the end users, who are nevertheless critical in the production chain” (Roberts, 2019, p. 71).

This content filtered was considered by FIFA and FIFPRO ‘against the rules’, but also was framed geographically and open to the World. That, as Robert establishes, means workers need to be culturally competent in Western societies and fluent in American English, or more languages (Roberts, 2019), an angle covered by Threat Matrix with analysis in various languages (FIFA; FIFPRO, 2024). One of many challenged that FIFA and FIFPRO had to face in order to fulfill their goals.


Gianni Infantino in a FIFA’s event 2020. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many have observed misogyny and sexism has profound roots in football due “decades of negative stereotypes” (Fenton, Ahmed, Hardey, Boardman, & Kavanagh, 2023, p. 3). For instance, FIFA agreed to organize the first official Women’s World Cup 58 years later than men’s first World Cup, with half of teams and shorter matches (Glendenning, 2019) in a clearly intromission to a male dominion where they were “permitted to play”, but with modify rules, narrow access to resources and installations or in separate events (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023, p. 11).

Today, the social media realm is controlled by platforms, clubs, bodies and events, those who hold the structural power, or the structural hegemony (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023) and in the current neoliberalist mindset often included “denial of endemic male privileged”, as observed by Kavanagh, Litchfield and Osborne (2023, p. 11). Something that confronts another time a traditional male space.

Some scholars have said women have been capable to create online ‘pockets of disruptive power’ (Bruce, 2016 in McCarthy, 2022, p. 57) in sports media and satisfactory overpass the traditional ‘male gaze’ (McCarthy, 2022; Phipps, 2023). But it is also “evident that social media may be used as a platform to regulate women and to endorse narrow, traditional, gender norms” (Phipps, 2023, p. 4235).

The fact that FIFA and FIFPRO could achieve such initiative is because they are healthy enough (Kavanagh, Litchfield, & Osborne, 2023), generation millions in revenue after each tournament (Mulvenney, 2023). Despite, FIFA and FIFPRO have decided to take down the problem itself, firstly recognizing it, secondly, accepting platforms are underperforming their duty of care, and thirdly, taking steps over legal national frames, in a similar approach to the policies that  manage the risks to create safe spaces for all (Woods & Perrins, 2022) and being them responsible for. A flipside to gain in organizational reputation, much needed in the FIFA’s books, especially when recomposing after the 2015’ corruption scandal(Office of Public Affairs, 2015).


Amnesty International. (2017, November 20). Amnesty reveals alarming impact of online abuse against women. Retrieved from Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2017/11/amnesty-reveals-alarming-impact-of-online-abuse-against-women/

Ann, K. (2014, July 14). Alex Morgan a force for equality with few equals in women’s soccer. Retrieved from San Francisco Chronicle: https://www.sfchronicle.com/sports/annkillion/article/alex-morgan-force-equality-equals-women-s-soccer-18197164.php

Fenton, A., Ahmed, W., Hardey, M., Boardman, R., & Kavanagh, E. (2023). Women’s football subculture of misogyny: the escalation to online gender-based violence. violence, European Sport Management Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/16184742.2023.2270566.

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FIFPRO. (2020). Raising our game: Women’s football report. Amsterdam: FIFPRO.

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Kavanagh, E. J., Litchfield, C., & Osborne, J. (2023). Critiquing the Social Media Scholarship in Sport Studies: Social Media and Athlete Welfare. International Journal of Sport Communication, 16(4):1-8.

Lewis, S. (2023, December 12). One in five Women’s World Cup players were targeted by online abuse during 2023 tournament, report finds . Retrieved from ABC News: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-12-12/fifa-fifpro-report-women-world-cup-players-targeted-online-abuse/103217254#

McCarthy, B. (2022). ‘Who unlocked the kitchen?’: Online misogyny, YouTube comments and women’s professional street skateboarding. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol. 57(3) 362–380.

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Mulvenney, N. (2023, August 19). ‘Best’ Women’s World Cup generates $570m for FIFA – Infantino. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/sports/soccer/best-womens-world-cup-generates-570m-fifa-infantino-2023-08-18/

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Wood, L. (2020, March 5). The Herald Sun explains its decision to close comments on AFL Women’s stories . Retrieved from The Herald Sun: https://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/afl/aflw/the-herald-sun-explains-its-decision-to-close-comments-on-afl-womens-stories/news-story/8a07790b3de1e21eba7b2325ea7a0371

Woods, L., & Perrins, W. (2022). Obliging Platforms to Accept a Duty of Care. In M. Morre, & T. D. (eds), Regulating Big Tech Policy Responses to Digital Dominance (pp. 93-108). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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