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World Rugby vice-chair Jeffrey reveals ground-breaking work to combat social media abuse

World Rugby have become the first global sporting organisation to prosecute against social media abuse
World Rugby have become the first global sporting organisation to prosecute against social media abuse (REUTERS)

World Rugby vice-chairman John Jeffrey has revealed the ground-breaking work the governing body are doing to combat social media abuse.

Speaking at the launch of new documentary Whistleblowers, which followed referees at the Rugby World Cup last year and is free to watch on RugbyPass, Jeffrey admitted he was appalled at the abuse officials had received.

World Rugby have become the first international sporting organisation to successfully prosecute individuals for online hate directed towards match officials following the World Cup final.

“What I loved about this film was the honesty and openness,” former Scotland international Jeffrey said. “But it's also the thing that appalled me about this film.

“And from my point of view, from watching that and having been involved with the referees as referee selector a few years ago, even I didn't appreciate the amount of abuse, the pressure they were under.

“My one takeaway from this was this is a must view. For every single rugby supporter, player, commentator, media anyone involved in the game needs to watch that to appreciate.

“Secondly, it highlights what we're doing at World Rugby with Signify who are monitoring social abuse that might lead to a criminal prosecution.

“In one way I hope it doesn't, because it doesn't reflect well on our game if we've got to prosecute somebody.

“But the other side is that I probably would quite like a prosecution to happen because again it would highlight that pressure these referees are under.”

Jeffrey became vice-chair of World Rugby in May last year having previously served as chair of Scottish Rugby and of the Six Nations.

The 64-year-old represented Scotland 44 times as a flanker before taking up the role as the chairman of the Rugby and Match Official selection committees.

World Rugby worked with ethical data science company Signify Group to monitor over 900 social media accounts during the Rugby World Cup in France last year.

They found that 49% of abuse recorded was directed towards match officials, with a third of all abuse received by Waynes Barnes, who refereed the World Cup final.

The governing body currently has a number of pending law enforcement cases as Jeffrey and the organisation commit to tackling the high levels of abuse.

He added: “We've got to be a lot more proactive on it. And with Signify if it means that we're going to prosecute people, we’ve got to do that.

“Because that really highlights how if we want to say our game is great, how good it is, the values that it espouses, what we've all got out of the game.

“If we're being genuine about that, we really need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk and if that means action, we've got to do it.

“Because it's a cheap throwaway line that there's no game without the referee but of course there's not.

“We need to support them because to get more people involved in the game and if it is through prosecutions or whatever, we have to support our referees.”