• Rugby united in taking a stand against online abuse against players and match officials
  • Successful charges and law enforcement cases pending in multiple jurisdictions as a result of ground-breaking partnership with Signify Group
  • More than 900 accounts monitored with over 1,600 abusive accounts flagged to platforms resulting in 90 per cent removal of most serious content
  • Recommendations to help World Rugby understand how to mitigate abuse at source, furthering protection
  • Ambition to roll out online protection service across rugby to protect match officials, players and deter future abuse

Pending law enforcement cases are among the key actions and outcomes from the ground-breaking online protection service put in place to support match officials and players across men’s Rugby World Cup 2023, also delivering unique insights for World Rugby to convert into meaningful action.

More than 900 social media accounts, including those belonging to all match officials with public-facing social accounts (including their families) and World Rugby’s official channels, were comprehensively monitored by Signify Group during the seven-week tournament held in France, the biggest service of its kind in the sport. It supported a wider promotion of the sport’s values at the showcase event.

The impact of the service comes as World Rugby releases the trailer for ‘Whistleblowers,’ an access-all-areas film following the match officials’ journey to and through Rugby World Cup 2023, which also highlights the scale of online abuse they faced. The ground-breaking film will launch via RugbyPass TV on 1 February.

Whistleblowers Trailer
World Rugby has released the official trailer for Whistleblowers, a ground-breaking film documenting the lives and experiences of the Emirates World Rugby Match Officials at the men’s Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.

Working in partnership with Signify Group and its artificial intelligence Threat Matrix service, the system identified, investigated and provided support relating to abuse and threat received by match officials, players, teams and officials throughout the tournament. Focusing on open-source X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram as well as private direct messaging, the system covered text, image and emoji use and operated across 35 languages and dialects.

At its core, the goal of the service was to be action-orientated. To this end, World Rugby can confirm that one individual in Australia has been charged for online abuse, cases in other jurisdictions are pending, and 1,600 social media accounts have been reported to platforms for breach of their community guidelines. In the case of more extreme abusive accounts flagged to platforms, takedown rates are running at approximately 90 per cent.

World Rugby can also confirm that it has extended the partnership with Signify Group to cover international match officials operating across the men’s and women’s test arenas in 2024.

World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said: “The rise of online hate in society and sport is worrying and totally unacceptable and we will continue to do everything possible to protect and support our international match officials and their families by bringing abusers to justice.

“As a result of our partnership with Signify Group we have been able to unmask and identify abusers and take action through law enforcement agencies in multiple countries. We hope that prosecutions will send a clear message that such behaviour is not tolerated and even if a person hides behind an alias on a social media network, they will be identified and can be charged.

“It is important to note that this programme is not about suppressing debate, legitimate criticism or free speech, it is about maintaining respect, compassion and decent human and rugby values. We will use the recommendations of the report to better understand online trends and help address the areas that lead to abuse at source. Some of these aspects will play into our Shape of the Game conversations in February.”

Triggers and trends identified via the partnership will also form recommendations for World Rugby to consider through its decision-making structures, ensuring that the project does not only take action but also seeks to address the cause of the action where possible.

Rugby World Cup 2023 final referee Wayne Barnes said: “Those who abuse or threaten players, match officials or their families must realise there will be consequences for their actions. It is great to see World Rugby leading the way and seeing the first charges being made against those individuals who send such appalling messages.

“There is simply no place for that behaviour in rugby, in sport or in society.”

Key insights from the men’s Rugby World Cup 2023 Threat Matrix service include:

  • Match officials, including Television Match Officials, received 49 per cent of total tournament abuse.
  • Three match officials were in the top 10 most targeted individuals of the tournament while Wayne Barnes received one third of all abuse.
  • Match officials were the fourth most abused ‘team’ at the tournament, surpassing the semi-finalists.
  • Match officials and their families also received abuse over private direct message, which led to law enforcement intervention.
  • Evidence of a clear correlation between comments (online and offline) from players and coaches triggering online and in-ground abuse of match officials.
  • The geographic origin of verified abusive accounts was as follows: Europe 58%, Africa 19%, Oceania 10%, South America 3% (with abuse from non-competing regions 10%).
  • Nineteen teams in total received targeted abuse on their official accounts. Two European nations were in the top three of most abused teams.
  • Players were targeted with a wider variety of abuse types compared to match officials who received a much higher proportion of targeted abuse around gambling-related abuse.

Jonathan Hirshler, CEO of Signify Group, added: “In a sport synonymous with values and respect, we are delighted to have supported World Rugby and its community to help create a safer online space for them. This was an intense project and the lessons from it will continue to shift the dial in the right direction. It is especially pleasing to see law enforcement prosecution move forward in multiple jurisdictions, and it is also clear that our work has supported platform activities to detect and remove abusive content, with takedown rates significantly increased because of the information we provided. This project has clearly demonstrated how match officials need protection and support to tackle social media abuse just as much as players, and we look forward to working with World Rugby going forward to create an even safer online environment for all.”

For more information

A copy of the Rugby World Cup 2023 Online Protection Service report can be found here.

About Signify Group  

Founded in 2017, Signify is an ethical data science and artificial intelligence company that uses open-source data to better understand what fans, consumers and the wider public really care about. Its work spans the business of sport, the private sector, and NGOs with our tech and insights helping organisations to communicate more effectively with those who matter most to them.

Threat Matrix, which uses AI and open-source forensic investigation techniques, launched in 2020 to protect individuals from online abuse. The service has grown and diversified, gaining significant traction in the sports sector. It is used by clubs, leagues, players unions, federations, and global sports event organisers to protect athletes and other stakeholders, as well as being used in investigations and intelligence support.

www.signify.ai | www.threatmatrix.ai