South Africa | Yoshini Perumal, The Post

Roshni Gajjar has made history as the first South African woman to join a global research team, fighting the online abuse of athletes and sports officials.

Gajjar, of Port Elizabeth, who has extensive expertise in motorsport, was one of four women in the world chosen by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of world motorsport, to receive a prestigious Global Research Scholarship, in support of the FIA’s United Against Online Abuse (UAOA) campaign.

This month, she joins Ana Rodriguez Armendariz of Mexico, Kimberley Wyllie of Scotland and Maria Luliano of Italy to roll out research programmes at the Dublin City University over two years, with full funding from the FIA Foundation.

Through improving the understanding of online abuse against athletes and officials, they hope to drive behavioural and regulatory change to combat abuse in the world of sport and e-sport.

The UAOA campaign was launched when last year, FIA president and founding partner of UAOA Mohammed Ben Sulayem came out strongly against the unacceptable levels of online abuse which he said was creating a blight on sport.

He said the level of sustained toxicity had reached a crisis point and it was time to take a stand.

Gajjar said she was proud to be a part of the diverse scholarship group to fight abuse of athletes globally.

“Online abuse deters people from participating, as it infringes on their human rights and compromises the psychological safety of victims, especially women and young people who are avid social media users.

“Athletes, officials and volunteers will leave the sport if nothing is done to protect them. Sport fuels passion and exercises potential. This opportunity presents a unique privilege to give back; to play my part in the global move to combat online abuse. I hope to make a positive difference,” she said.

Gajjar said the victims of online abuse were mainly elite, young and female athletes.

“Online abuse can be triggered by good or bad performance. In sport, there is always a winner and a loser. But sport is driven by loyalty, passion and emotion. Athletes are giving their 100% to every game, but are lambasted on social media when things don’t turn out the way a supporter wants it to.

“When it becomes a trend on social media, it starts harming their mental health. One has no control of engagement online. Most people remain anonymous, so it’s hard to tell where it stems from. As spectators and lovers of sport, everyone has an opinion. Sport also fuels national pride and is impacted by cultural and language differences,” Gajjar said.

She added that online abuse affected every type of sport. Whether an athlete was at an elite or rising star level, if they felt victimised and intimidated, it was hard for them to perform at their best as abuse impacted their confidence.

“Athletes are less likely to compete or participate after they are victims of online abuse. A survey done by FIA indicated that 90% of athletes said that if nothing is done about online abuse, they would consider leaving the sport. When it starts impacting the safety and security of the athlete and their families, it becomes quite serious.

“Sporting federations do not put these issues into the spotlight because it is already sensitive. But authorities play a part in the process to mitigate the situation.

“Hence, it is very critical that we need to understand what is the prevalence, what causes it, what are the triggers and the level of abuse. Flaming, where someone threatens or sends an abusive or rude message to an identified target, is also becoming very prevalent,” she said.

Adrian Scholtz, the MotorSport South Africa’s chief executive, said Gajjar’s selection would add a South African perspective to the FIA’s UAOA global initiative.

“We are also highly supportive that the FIA has selected four women. It is commendable that they initiated the research to develop evidence-based information to steer online abuse combat strategies. Online abuse goes against the spirit of fair play and has no place in sport,” Scholtz added.

Gajjar is a strategy consultant and chartered accountant by profession, and the executive director of Future Ones, a non-profit company providing science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) educational programmes for motorsport in schools in South Africa.

Her work has been largely in motorsport, media, reporting on the F1 and promoting F1 in schools through a fun and educational Stem programme.

As I type, I am grappling with the unintended ripples of a recent delicate, in-person conversation with an acquaintance. I shared a suggestion that was intended to encourage but instead, was received as being condescending, evoking some anger and hurt. On reflection, perhaps an empathetic listening ear was all the person needed that day. So often we express a perspective, without being fully aware of where someone is at on the textured spectrum of immunity and vulnerability.

Had this been an online conversation, the flow of human chemistry and rapport would have been detached from the start. Yet social media platforms are the new public square that connect billions of users who are geographically spread and socially diverse. Everyone has a voice to exercise freedom of speech online, from leaders, influencers and brands to the unidentified sensation seeker, even if what gets posted undermines or infringes someone else’s human rights. There are no norms and very few filters - insults and hostile messages flow freely, leading to the misuse of social media to spread violent messages and aggressive comments, using offensive language and hurtling hateful speech towards people and groups who represent “the other”. Consistent content moderation is a challenge, but not an excuse.

Social media companies are not playing ball to limit the damage, electing to prioritise profits above people. In 2021, the Facebook Files exposed the lack of online safety controls that placed peoples’ lives and young users’ mental health at risk, with mention of vulnerable communities in Africa. Research reveals that 80% of European Union (EU) citizens have encountered hate speech online, discouraging engagement. Regulators and social media platform owners are at loggerheads. Legislators in the EU and UK are norming. Guidelines and legislation in South Africa are forming. Meanwhile boardroom leaders are staying in their own lanes, fast-tracking digitalisation.

Online abuse in sport is on the rise, with many athletes, employees and volunteers being pinged with threatening, abusive or rude social media messages, termed “flaming”. Healthy competition and victorious results can unite and inspire like the Boks have done for SA. On the opposite end, fanatical rivalry and defeat can over-heat to hate, with or without socio-political undertones. Elite athletes are prime targets of online abuse, irrespective of good or bad performance. The see-saw of applause and abuse gets usurped by online trolls, mostly using anonymous profiles to side-step accountability. The bottom-line is that athletes will leave the sport and fans will lose interest if nothing is done.

Survey trends indicate that more than 40% of professional English football players have experienced abuse on X and 20% of players in the 2023 Women’s World Cup reported social media abuse. The Mbonambi/Curry racial allegation incident proved that language diversity adds complexity, with World Rugby expressing its concern at the level of online abuse directed at both players. Tennis and cricket players too are calling out the online onslaughts they receive from fans. Cyber bullying is rife in e-sports and online gaming, while a criminal element in legalised online sports betting has compelled FBI intervention to protect the lives of targeted US college football players. At the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula One's online reach is growing at speed but with a downside drag. The 2022 "Drive It Out" video campaign called for greater respect to protect driver safety and well-being, following online attacks against seven times World Champion, Lewis Hamilton and former Williams driver, Nicholas Latifi. President of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), Mohammed Ben Sulayem, reached a point of zero tolerance after female race steward, Silvia Bellot, received numerous online death threats in reaction to her controversial post-race penalty decision. The red flags are up and yes, sports leaders are on guard.

Online toxicity in sport has reached a crisis point and international sports federation administrators are at a pivotal choice point. Online abuse and online hate, in the form of racism, misogyny, sectarianism, bullying and other, dampen the spirit of fair play and must be eradicated urgently to sustain prosperity in sport. Elite athletes and experienced employees represent high-value human capital - constant exposure to online attacks threatens psychological safety, a building block for high performance cultures. Weak governance of online abuse will dilute stakeholder confidence, compromising the overall value proposition in sport. The game is on to prevent this.

Spearheaded by the FIA, the United Against Online Abuse (UAOA) is a global, multi-stakeholder coalition aimed at steering the way forward to tackle all forms of online hate speech in sport, in consultation with governments and NGO’s. With a privileged seat on the UAOA research panel, I aim to make a positive difference through generation of evidence-based research that informs responsible and efficacious combat strategies. In parallel, to engage with national sports federation leaders and affected athletes in South Africa, and interested counterparts in the southern hemisphere, to discuss, understand and raise an awareness on this topic. The FIA and Motorsport South Africa have pledged their green light of support. For shared success, the circle of committed collaborators will need to get bigger so that sport continues to, as Madiba said, “…unite people in a way that little else does”.

Circling back to my earlier reflections, I was reminded that human connections are inherently fragile in a turbulent world, requiring mindful calibration, conversation-by-conversation, chat-by-chat, post-by-post. In person or online, say it with human kindness.

Roshni Gajjar is the Founder and Managing Director of StratAstute Consulting specialising in strategy consulting, resilient success coaching and a director of Future Ones NPC which promotes educational STEM programmes fit for motorsport and allied industries.