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Formula 1

‘Existential threat’ – FIA’s six-point plan against online hate

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
3 min read

The FIA has published a paper outlining a six-point plan for combatting the “existential threat” of online toxicity, and has shared the results of an AI trial conducted using its social media accounts and those of its president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem.

A 14-page ‘white paper’ – a term introduced by the UK government that represents a primer on an issue combined with outlines of a policy on how to combat it – has been published by the FIA University initiative.

In it, motorsport’s governing body declares itself “the first major governing body of sport to provide a sustained and strategic response concerning this issue” and calls upon “all other sporting federations to join our campaign”.

“The FIA accepts that to assume such a leadership role, it must avoid mere virtue signalling, instead adopting an approach that will be understood as sustained, committed, and far-reaching,” the paper reads, while also stating the governing body is “no longer prepared to be passive on this issue”.

“The existential threat presented by online hate speech in motorsport, targeted at competitors, FIA personnel and officials, many of whom are volunteers, can no longer be ignored,” it adds, singling out the abuse and threats received by steward Silvia Bellot after Formula 1’s United States Grand Prix last year – a race in which then-Alpine driver Fernando Alonso received a controversial penalty that would be later overturned on appeal for procedural reasons.

The abuse directed at Bellot was far from the only such instance in F1 in recent years, with teams and drivers routinely finding themselves decrying and/or condemning hate directed at themselves, rivals or officials.

The FIA paper features a review of research into online hate and particularly its sports fandom-related facets, but it stresses said research “remains comparatively minimal” and that there is a “Western-cultural focus of such published work” that leaves other areas of study “isolated”.

And it claims that many of the standard proposed solutions and campaigns “have rarely been subject to any form of rigorous and detached assessment, and therefore how impactful they are remains unclear”.

“The challenge remains one of engaging [individuals posting hateful content] and highlighting the harmful impact of their activities on others, many of whom, it is worth emphasising again, are volunteers.”

But the results presented in the paper are ones in the area of moderation rather than engagement. As part of its cooperation with AI company Arwen, the FIA says it has seen an AI-curated reduction of “toxic social media comments” by two-thirds under its own social media profiles. It says president Ben Sulayem’s social media accounts have also been included in the Arwen trial, and claims they have seen a reduction in “average toxicity” from 15% to just under 11%.

The FIA’s “detailed six-point plan to address online hate” in racing is outlined as follows:

  • Consulting a wide range of relevant individuals, institutions and agencies to offer an informed, evidence-based approach to the issue
  • Working with other sporting bodies, athlete representatives and other policymakers – and, importantly, social media companies, to ensure an impact
  • Launching a dedicated research centre into online hate, staffed by post-doctoral researchers and with scholarships offered
  • Maintaining a ‘relentless campaign to highlight the scourge of online hate on its valued personnel, officials and volunteers’ through all communication channels and media partners
  • Recognising that the undertaking will only be a success when meaningful change is delivered
  • Using every opportunity to highlight the work being undertaken in this sphere, and working with the European Union and national governments

“Sustained online toxicity has reached deplorable levels,” said Ben Sulayem in light of the paper’s release.

“We will no longer tolerate FIA volunteers, officials, employees and drivers being subjected to this extreme abuse. It has no place in our sport and if it continues it could destroy it. We will take a collaborative approach in combatting this scourge on our sport and others.”

The FIA also quotes heads of motorcycle racing federation FIM and UK football referee body PGMOL as coming out with support and a pledge of continued cooperation.

It says it “will reveal further details of a concerted action plan in the coming months”.

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