Online Violence: Female Athletes Facing a Harsh Situation

In 2024, sports have become massively digitized and media-driven. Social media has completely transformed the ecosystem of sports events. Now, over 97% athletes have at least one social media account and nearly 70% of them use the account for work, sponsor or showcase their professional profile (Toffoletti et al., 2024). Social media has connected athletes with their friends, fans, and potential sponsors. For female athletes who have long been overlooked in mainstream media, social media has given them an avenue to create their own IP, self-branding, and increase their influence and commercial value (Toffoletti et al., 2022). Everything seems so wonderful.

However, there is also a dark side to this. Public accounts not only attract fans but also all kinds of trolls. Almost every female athletes (9 out of 10) experienced online abuse on social platforms (Toffoletti et al., 2024). This has negative impacts on their mental health, sports performance, and economic opportunities. This happens in all sports programs, especially in those team sports historically dominated by males, such as Australian rules football, rugby league, and soccer (Toffoletti et al., 2024).

In this blog, I will introduce and analyze the situation in which female athletes face serious online violence on social media, along with the reasons behind it. I will also conduct an analysis of the case of the famous freestyle skier Eileen Gu to understand the possible motivations behind such attacks. Additionally, I will discuss the governance of online abuse, focusing on the Social Media Protection Service (SMPS), which has been successfully implemented by FIFA during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023.

Why Female Athletes?

Since social media became popular, online harm has become an ongoing problem (Sinpeng et al., 2021). Research shows that nearly half of internet users have been harassed in cyberspace, with this proportion being much higher and constantly growing among female athletes (Flew, 2021). To better address and manage this issue, we first need a thorough understanding of the reasons behind such toxic behavior and the harm it causes. Why is this proportion so high, and what kind of harm have they suffered? 

First of all, sports events, in their development, have given rise to a subculture of physical violence. Many spectators bring intense confrontational emotions into the arena, which can evolve into aggressive behavior. One famous example is the notorious football hooligans in England. People not only vent their emotions through this behavior but also gain a sense of identity in group violence. In this subculture, a certain degree of mutual aggression is considered acceptable. With the digitization of sports events, this kind of mutual aggression can escalate into hate speech online(Kearns et al., 2023). From the era when sports fans attacked each other on sports forums before the 2010s, to the era of social media, the targets of attacks have expanded to include the athletes.

At the same time, while the purpose and spirit of international sports events focus on promoting peace, unity and cultural exchange. We have to admit that the international sports arena still turns into a lens of showcasing and competing in political and cultural soft power. A common situation is that when athletes represent their countries in international competitions, the patriotism of some groups can degenerate into extreme populism. Athletes are often at the centre of this political and cultural struggle during competitions and selection processes and thus become targets of attack (Kearns et al., 2023). In many cases, sports commentators, journalists, and even political activists outside the sports world have more influence on social media platforms.

For female athletes, except these problems, they are also facing serious gender-based violence in the cyberspace. I use the term “violence” because I think it can better cover public hate speech and private harassment and attacks. The United Nations defined “Violence against women” as:

“any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. ”(United Nations,1993, Article 1)

The top five gendered online violence type includes personal insults, hate speech, purposeful attempts to embarrass and sexual harassment. Almost 90% of female athletes have experienced online violence in all main-stream social media platforms(Toffoletti et al., 2024).

This statistic and the damage caused behind it is alarming. A number of high-profile female athletes have spoken out about the psychological damage caused by online violence. Golfer player Paige Spiranac 、said she had considered suicide (Myers, 2016). Heather Watson, a British tennis star, also talked about the bullying she encountered on social media, including remarks speculating about her family’s safety and threats to her own life (Ward, 2015).

Case Review: Eileen Gu

Eileen Gu, a top freestyle skier who has been in the spotlight since the 2022 Winter Olympics.

In her Instagram, when asked if she had experienced long-term mental health struggles, she wrote:“ When I was 15 and getting death threats. There were people blaming me for geopolitical problems that not even the world’s most eminent politicians could solve. There were people accusing me of blatant falsehoods….in that period I learned that people see what they want to see.”

Eillen Gu, the American-born Chinese, announced that she would be competing for China at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing when she was 15. As a professional athlete, this is a common decision. Eileen Gu has strong cultural ties to China; she is fluent in Chinese and returns to China every year to study. Yet this decision subjected her to severe cyber violence and even death threats, even though she was a minor back then.

This cyberbullying is laced with the tense geopolitical relationship between the United States and China since Pandemic 2019, racist discrimination against Asians in American society, xenophobia, and extreme ethnic sentiment. As we discussed earlier, sports is a lens of politics. Eileen Gu has been accused of not being loyal enough to the United States. Mainstream media outlets such as the Washington Daily News have also come down on her, repeatedly mentioning that she was born and educated in the U.S. in an attempt to create an image of her as an ungrateful immigrant. This is despite the fact that herski training is completely self-funded, paid for by her mother, and takes place all over the world. The trollers interpret her career choice as a skier was magnified into a discussion about her political stance.

This cyberbully reaches its peak on 8 February 2022when team USA had gold medals while Gu had earned China’s third gold medal. On February 8, #EileenGuTraitor was trending on US social media.

Elinee Gu is not the only American sportswoman who has suffered large scale online political-driven violence. During the FIFA women’s world cup 2023, football players such asMegan Anna Rapinoe were deemed unpatriotic and anti-American for not singing the national anthem, and were thus subjected to massive cyberabuse (FIFA, 2023).

Challenges of Regulating Online Violence: Twitter

The ambiguous boundary between speech freedom and online bully, together with the lax regulations of platforms is one of the reasons for cyber violence against athletes. Twitter is the most prominent platform. 89% of female athletes using Twitter have been harmed, which is the highest across all platforms (popular platforms include Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram). According FIFA’s monitoring of social media during the FIFA 2023 women’s football tournament, Twitter also had the highest number of tweets confirmed to have been designed to abuse and treat (FIFA, 2023).

In Twitter’s help center’s instruction on abuse and harassment, Twitter emphasizes their mission is to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information, as well as express their opinions. and beliefs without barriers.”

This instruction also states, “We also believe that criticism of  institutions, practices, and ideas is a fundamental part of the freedom of expression and thus we will not take action on such critical commentary. “

However, read it again and we can find that this is actually a very ambiguous expression and constraint. In the case of Eileen Gu, politically-driven cyberbully tends to conflate personal attacks with criticism of institutions and implicitly racist views. According to Twitter’s regulation, it is complicated and subjective to define what kind of speech should be addressed.

Meanwhile, Twitter is using a user-reporting mechanism. While they say that anyone can report such hurtful posts, this is not enough to combat the massive cyberbully situation that many high-profile female athletes face. We also need to consider that Twitter’s trending feature could lead to online violence. Automated algorithms would turn topics into trends and attract more users to the conversation, just like the #EileenGuTraitor in 2022. Although Twitter claims that they do some manual censorship of trending content, as they do with user-reported content, nobody actually knows how many security and censorship employees are still working at Twitter.

The Australian E-safety Commission had similar concerns about the situation. They even found that Twitter’s local contact responsible for enforcing Australia’s laws regarding image abuse or bullying had even disappeared (Taylor, 2023). The Australian government has enacted the Online Safety Act 2021 in 2022 as a broader and more effective legal weapon against online abuse and harm (Grant, 2022). The Online Safety Act 2021 imposes a range of specific regulatory requirements on companies providing online services, including the inclusion of a commissioner responsible for the regulation and a time limit for removal harmful contents (Online Safety Act 2021, 2022). Judging from the current implementation, large tech companies are not strictly adhering to this act. The Australian government is in the process of drafting legally effective industry codes to regulate cyberspace. (Taylor, 2023).

Unlike Twitter’s rules, the Online Safety Act2011 provides a definition of offensive material for online bully:

(a)the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.

(b) the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the material; (c)the general character of the material.

(c) the general character of the material (including whether it is of a medical, legal or scientific character).

I think that Elieen Gu’s proposal after she experienced the cyberbullying expresses similar core ideas. She wrote:“Let’s just all be a little more empathetic and polite. You don’t even have to agree or be nice…how about we stick to civility.”

FIFA: Social Media Protection Service (SMPS)

Except for social media companies and government, some peak sports organizations has also participated into the fight against online violence, such as FIFA, the international Association Football Federation. Since 2022, FIFA provides Social Media Protection Service (SMPS) for athletes, teams, officials and other stakeholders during the eight international competitions, including World Cup Qatar 2022 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023(FIFA,2023).

So What did FIFA do?

FIFA’s collaboration with social media platforms, serves as a supplement and extension to the imperfect platform regulatory mechanisms. During competitions, SMPS actively monitors all stakeholders’ accounts and over 5 million posts/comments on all platforms with the help of an AI-empowered threat detection algorithm (FIFA 2023).

The detection system will automatically hides in real-time any content detected within relevant comment sections that is deemed discriminatory, abusive, or threatening. The flagged posts will undergo a human review process. Once the content is verified to contain the aforementioned elements, it will be reported to the platform. Platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook have achieved deletion rates of 80% to 100% for such posts. Due to Twitter’s initial deletion mechanism, only 39% of posts were removed. However, through direct collaboration between FIFA and Twitter, the final takedown rate reached 95%.

This process prevents athletes from being directly exposed to malicious online environments. It also optimizes the reporting mechanism to minimize the risk of secondary harm. Account owners, whether individuals or operators, can also actively monitor and adjust the content hidden or blocked in the account’s comment section (FIFA 2023).


The detection process of SMPS has alleviated a significant portion of the responsibility that social media platforms should bear. It also exposing Twitter’s platform’s ineffectiveness in monitoring and reporting content related to cyberbullying.

Although FIFA’s SMPS seems to be a perfect mechanism, it still has its limitations. For example, it may not effectively detect content containing emojis and coded language (FIFA, 2023). Additionally, conducting such large-scale monitoring as a third party requires substantial funding and manpower. Many niche, commercially unprofitable, or individual-based sports may not be able to afford such services. For instance, sports like freestyle skiing, which Eileen Gu is involved in. However, athletes in these programs also need protection. Government agencies could consider intervening and requiring platforms to provide similar detection services during major sporting events.

Reference List

Reference List

FIFA/FIFPRO. (2023). Social Media Protection Service: FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023TM Tournament Analysis.

Flew, Terry (2021) Hate Speech and Online Abuse. In Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 115-118.

Grant, J., I. (2022, October 25). Tackling individual harms and systemic reform in 2021-22. eSafetyCommissioner.

Kavanagh, E., Litchfield, C., & Osborne, J. (2019). Sporting women and social media: Sexualization, misogyny, and gender-based violence in online spaces. International Journal of Sport Communication, 12(4), 552–572.

Kearns, C., Sinclair, G., Black, J., Doidge, M., Fletcher, T., Kilvington, D., & Rosati, P. (2023). A scoping review of research on online hate and sport. Communication & Sport, 11(2), 402-430.

Myers, A. (2016, December 5). Watch an emotional Paige Spiranac speak out about the cyber bullying she’s faced. Golf Digest.

Online Safety Act 2021 (Cth) pt1 (AUS). (Online Safety Act2021, 2022)

Taylor, T. (2023, May 16). Australian government threatens tougher regulation as eSafety commissioner decries Twitter’s ‘sewer rats’. Guardian Australia.

Australian government threatens tougher regulation as eSafety commissioner decries Twitter’s ‘sewer rats’ | X | The Guardian

Toffoletti, K., Ahmad, N., & Thorpe, H. (2022). Critical Encounters with Social Media in Women’s Sport and Physical Culture. In J.Sanderson (Ed.), Sport, Social Media, and Digital Technology: Sociological Approaches (pp. 29-48). Emerald.

Toffoletti, K., McGrane, C., & Reddan, S. (2024). Addressing Online Harm in Australian Women’s Sport. Deakin University.

Sinpeng, A., Martin, F., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021, July 5). Facebook: Regulating hate speech in the Asia Pacific. Dept of Media and Communication, University of Sydney and School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.

Ward, V. (2015). Heather Watson: I won’t let death threats wreck my chances at Wimbledon. The Telegraph.

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