The chairman of anti-discrimination agency Kick It Out has expressed concern that Twitter will be unable to deal with online abuse during the World Cup following a spate of job losses at the social media platform.
Sanjay Bhandari said he was deeply concerned by reports of cuts in Twitter’s trust and security team and the departure of the manager in charge of the department.
“I am deeply concerned that the downsizing of the trust and security team and the departure of the leader of that team will be taken as a bright green light for hate,” Bhandari said. “I am afraid that hate on an industrial scale during the World Cup will not be controlled by Twitter.”
Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, laid off about 50% of Twitter’s 7,500 employees this month. Following the layoffs, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, said 15% of his team had been laid off.
Roth left the company soon after. Last weekend, more than 4,000 Twitter contractors, including people who worked on content moderation, were reportedly terminated from their roles.
Overnight, there were reports of widespread layoffs among Twitter’s remaining 3,700 employees after Musk set a 10pm GMT deadline by which workers should commit to being “extremely hardcore” or walking with three months’ severance pay.
Bhandari said moderation on Twitter had been “opaque, inconsistent and understaffed at the best of times,” and he worried the platform would struggle to cope with a surge in user engagement among football fans after the World Cup began on Sunday.
Before Roth left, he said Twitter had been subjected to a coordinated trolling campaign that bombarded the platform with abusive content in an apparent attempt to convince users it had relaxed content guidelines.
A recent study found that more than 300 abusive tweets are sent to Premier League footballers every day and nearly seven in ten players are insulted on Twitter. Research by the Alan Turing Institute, the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, found that 60,000 abusive tweets were directed at Premier League players in the first half of last season.
One of the report’s authors said Twitter’s ability to deal with footballer abuse could be affected by the job cuts.
“We are aware that Twitter operates with a smaller workforce,” said Pica Johansson, a researcher on the institute’s online security team. “And because of that, they may be less able to respond quickly to some of these types of abuse that we’re seeing.”
The institute’s research found that less than 10% of abusive tweets were identity attacks that referenced protected characteristics such as race, gender or sexuality. However, Hannah Kirk, an online safety researcher at the institute, said racial or nationality-related slurs could be more common at the World Cup.
“I see the big difference between the Premier League and the World Cup in global attention and also in an increased awareness of nationalism, potentially reinforcing stereotypical links between race and nation. We could then see a little bit more racism or nationality-related slurs than in the Premier League,” Kirk said.
Still, the Football Association is confident it can act if Twitter becomes a focus of player abuse, as it did at last year’s Euros.
Football associations in England set up a rapid reporting system last year and the FA confirmed on Twitter that the same support will be available in the coming month and that resources will be made available for moderation.
The FA also uses third party agencies to monitor and report abuse on its behalf. This week, Fifa and international players’ union Fifpro announced a similar system, a ‘Social Media Protection Service’ (SMPS), which would be available to players in all 32 nations participating in the World Cup.
The SMPS allows for the scanning and reporting of offensive content and lets players with social media accounts automatically hide comments deemed offensive. This service only applies to posts on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, although Twitter has been excluded from the process due to technical problems.
Twitter has been contacted for comment.