Rugby: World Rugby takes legal action over online abuse of officials at World Cup

World Rugby is taking legal action over the online abuse of players and match officials at last year's Rugby World Cup.

During the tournament in France, World Rugby used a third-party data science and artificial intelligence company, Signify Group, to help identify new methods to take action against the online hate speech.

It passed more than 200 alleged incidents across seven countries to law enforcement and Government agencies for investigation.

Those investigations have progressed to the prosecution of one person in Australia, who will appear in court this week to face a charge of online abuse. 

There are also multiple pending prosecutions in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, and the UK.

"We're very supportive of world rugby in investigating and working through this further and we all want real accountability around this area, we just don't think it's got a place in the game," says New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson.

NZ referee Ben O'Keeffe.
NZ referee Ben O'Keeffe. Photo credit: Getty Images

More than 1,600 abusive social media account were flagged by the online monitoring agency, which oversaw more than 900 accounts belonging to match officials at the tournament and their families.

World Cup final referee Wayne Barnes retired after the game, revealing he and his family had been subjected to "vile" social media abuse.

Australian Tom Foley has taken a break from refereeing at test level due to the criticism endured after he was TMO at the final. 

Kiwi referee Ben O'Keeffe has also been open about the abuse he's suffered on social media.

Former rugby referee Chris Pollock agress the abuse has gone too far. 

"The more prevelant that becomes I think people will realise they can't just sit behind a keyboard and abuse people without there being consequences." 

Monitoring found 49 percent of the total abuse during the World Cup was directed at match officials. Barnes was the most targeted, recieving one third of all abuse.

Match officials and their families received abuse over private direct message, which has led to law enforcement intervention.

"Those who abuse or threaten players, match officials or their families must realise there will be consequences for their actions," Barnes told the BBC.

"It is great to see World Rugby leading the way and seeing the first charges being made against those individuals who send such appalling messages. 

"There is simply no place for that behaviour in rugby, in sport or in society."

The majority of verified abuse accounts came from Europe (58 percent), followed by Africa (19 percent), Oceania (10 percent), and South America (3 percent).