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14 July 2018updated 21 Sep 2021 6:34am

Searches related to domestic violence spiked during both World Cup semi-finals

Exclusive data shows a correlation between match times and opponent goals scored, and spikes in searches for terms related to domestic violence.

By Sarah Manavis

At 7 o’clock on Wednesday night, the streets in England were exceptionally quiet. What felt like nearly everyone across the country was piled into pubs and living rooms, waiting with baited breath, to watch England play Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. There was a level of energy and excitement that felt almost unfamilar and, despite the loss, it felt like a moment of genuine, heartfelt unity.

At the same time on Wednesday night, though, something wholly different was happening. At 7 o’clock, searches skyrocketed for helplines and resources related to domestic violence. 

Data provided exclusively to the New Statesman by online data analysts Moonshot CVE, reveals that domestic violence-related searches spiked during both semi-final matches this week, with extra spikes correlating directly with goals scored against England. Moonshot CVE (Counter Violent Extremism), a tech startup that specialise in identification, assessment and response to violent and socially harmful content online, pulled data for more than 200 search terms and tracked thousands of searches over three days, showing a significant correlation between those tracked terms and football match times.

This data adds to a national conversation regarding sport and domestic violence. When the World Cup began last month, one statistic in particular went viral. It came from a Lancaster University report that showed incidents of domestic violence during the World Cup rose drastically whenever England played. The specific stat showed an increase of 26 per cent when England won or drew in World Cup matches, and an astonishing 38 per cent increase if they lost.

The BBC ran a detailed piece on the statistics, including case studies, after England made it past the group stage of this year’s World Cup. At the time of the England semi-final against Croatia, charities around the UK were warning against domestic violence in response to the football, with social media posts receiving tens of thousands of likes and retweets. 

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One particular graphic, created by the National Centre of Domestic Violence, made headlines. It showed a woman’s bruised, bloodied face (with the blood drops mimicking an England flag) alongside the text: “If England gets beaten, so does she.”

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The national attention to this statistic has turned what was a niche data point just one month ago into a major part of this World Cup’s mainstream discourse. 

“We all saw the recent BBC Three article which cited increases in rates of domestic violence during previous World Cups, particularly when England lose,” Alexa Hassan, an analyst at Moonshot, told me. “We decided to investigate for ourselves by using our own technology to collect anonymised data on searches related to domestic violence during the matches.”

Since 2015, Moonshot have developed software, algorithms and methodologies designed to disrupt and ultimately end violent extremism, using those digital methods to do so. It has worked 28 countries combating violent extremism and have partnered with global corporations, such as Google. In many cases, its work involves using the Redirect Method, a method it developed with Jigsaw, Google’s in-house tech incubator, which redirects Google users at-risk of violent extremism (ie searching for extremist content) towards content that offers real support and towards positive, alternative messages. Most recently, it has turned its attention to gender-based violence.

Moonshot set up an experiment to track searches in the UK related to domestic violence and abuse surrounding the World Cup semi-final onward. Its analysts plotted searches for over two hundred terms collected over the entirety of Tuesday afternoon through to Friday morning. Search terms included obvious things, such as “domestic violence helpline” and “report domestic abuse”, but also included more niche searches, such as “my husband beats me what should i do” and “my boyfriend is going to beat me up if i go home”.  The data resulted in thousands of searches over the course of roughly three days.

It’s worth caveating now that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Data searches are not a science, and search term spikes could have been caused by a variety of other factors having nothing to do with the World Cup matches. That being said, the data is both compelling and, from a certain perspective, horrifying. Below is a chart of the data that they found starting from 15:00 on Tuesday 10 July 2018 until 5:00 on Friday 12 July 2018.

Moonshot’s test found that spikes in searches occurred during both semi-final matches, almost to the minute at the time they began. The Moonshot tracking also found that there wasn’t a major spike on Thursday night, at least not to the level of Tuesday and Wednesday, which was the one night in the data set where no football was on. While there were spikes in both matches, England’s semi-final match against Croatia saw a much sharper, much greater spike than that of the France-Belgium match, as might be expected as searches were entirely UK-based.

“We found that searches [during this time]…mostly came from people expressly searching for support services,” Hassan noted.  

Within England’s match might be the most compelling data, specifically the two small spikes during that game – one at 8:26 and one at 9:22. Why it’s compelling, you may have guessed, is it because it exactly correlates with the two times that Croatia scored goals during the match.  

Another interesting, albeit small, set of spikes seen in this chart are those the mornings after each match. One could speculate that, had domestic violence occurred the night before, victims and abusers alike may on reflection the next day take to Google to find out more about what happened the night previous.

While all this could be backed up by the Lancaster University report, the report itself has two major limitations. One is that both statistics cited in the report, the increase in domestic violence incidents of 26 per cent and 28 per cent (for wins and losses respectively) is based on data that, at its most recent, is eight years old. Released four years ago in 2014, the Lancaster University report only collected World Cup data from 2002, 2006, and 2010; meaning that a third of the data being bandied around now, in 2018, is 16 years old.

The other problem with the statistics is that only “incidents of domestic violence” reported to the police  are recorded – hence the data by default fails to track the unreported incidents of domestic violence that undoubtedly occurred during those three World Cups.  

Although the data point is useful and, frankly, the best we appear to have, it’s not clear whether it’s representative of the 2018 reality. And with domestic abuse underreported in many parts of the UK, determining actual domestic violence purely based on police reports seems an antiquated and objectively one-sided way to get the full picture. This is where Moonshot’s data becomes important. If it is indeed reflective of actual incidents of domestic violence, it gives us a real-time track of when domestic violence is occurring in big waves. Although this is still difficult to tackle, it could provide a quicker way to figure out what is causing domestic violence to spike, and then, ultimately, how to stop it. 

And that’s the next struggle facing organisations like Moonshot: with this information, is what exactly can be done with it to prevent domestic violence. “This kind of data should and can be used to inform initiatives designed to help people who need this type of support,” Hassan explained. 

Like much of the reporting around the Lancaster University statistic, the information is reported and awareness campaigns are cited, but little is said about how domestic violence around the World Cup could be lessened. Many campaigns have warned against drinking too much around football matches. One campaign from Women’s Aid, Football United Against Domestic Violence, has tried tackling the problem by partnering with footballers and clubs to send a message that “domestic violence is unacceptable.” However, if this data proves to be correct, domestic violence around World Cup matches is still very much alive. And, at present, it seems there’s very little being done to actually prevent it.

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