Manchester United have exposed the stark levels of abuse aimed at their players ahead of a four-day social media boycott.

Football clubs and players all over England will be joined in the action, which runs from 1500 BST on Friday until 2359 BST on Monday, by UEFA and major bodies across cricket, rugby union, tennis, rugby league and other sports.

The move follows an increase in online abuse aimed at sportspeople, with United's research offering a glimpse at how bad the problem is.

United revealed a 350 per cent increase in abuse directed towards their players since September 2019, with 86 per cent of 3,300 abusive posts categorised as being racist in nature.

A further eight per cent were deemed homophobic or transphobic.

"It must be said that while these numbers are shocking, they do only represent a 0.01 per cent of conversations that take place on social media about the club and the players," said group managing director Richard Arnold.

"By taking part in this boycott this weekend, we, alongside the rest of English football, want to shine a light on the issue. It will generate debate and discussion and will raise awareness of the levels of abuse our players and our fans receive."

An announcement of the boycott came jointly last Saturday from numerous organisations in football, including the Premier League, the English Football League, the Football Association, the Professional Footballers' Association, the Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship.

"While some progress has been made, we reiterate those requests today in an effort to stem the relentless flow of discriminatory messages and ensure that there are real-life consequences for purveyors of online abuse across all platforms," the groups said in a release.

"Boycott action from football in isolation will, of course, not eradicate the scourge of online discriminatory abuse, but it will demonstrate that the game is willing to take voluntary and proactive steps in this continued fight."

Since that statement was released, other bodies have declared they will join the boycott from across various sports, with cycling, horseracing and hockey also on board.

Football's European governing body, UEFA, also pledged its support in a strongly worded statement from president Aleksander Ceferin on Thursday.

"We've had enough of these cowards who hide behind their anonymity to spew out their noxious ideologies," he said.

The move instigated by England's footballing bodies follows them sending a letter to social media companies in February, urging them to take numerous steps to take down online abuse, including quick removal of offensive posts and an improved verification process.

Some within the game have already taken individual action to protest, with Thierry Henry withdrawing from all social media platforms until the issue is appropriately addressed.

Henry's stance came after a spate of incidents of vile abuse being aimed at sportspeople online.

Chelsea put out a statement in January after Reece James was targeted, saying: "Something needs to change and it needs to change now."

Manchester United duo Anthony Martial and Axel Tuanzebe were also racially abused online after the side's loss to Sheffield United, with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer calling for stronger intervention from social media platforms.

The PFA has urged its members to remember the "vital importance" of following coronavirus and club protocols as the United Kingdom enters a third period of national lockdown.

On Monday, the UK government confirmed England would be placed under strict restrictions as COVID-19 infection rates and deaths continue to rise.

Though vaccines are starting to be rolled out to vulnerable groups, the UK recorded 62,322 new cases and 1,041 deaths on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Premier League confirmed that 40 players and staff members – a new high – had tested positive for the virus over the most recent two rounds of testing, up from 18 the previous week.

Three matches in England's top flight were postponed over the festive period, while a number of EFL games have also been unable to take place.

With elite sport allowed to continue despite the new lockdown regulations, the Premier League has insisted it has full faith in its protocols, while the EFL announced on Wednesday it would introduce a twice-weekly testing regime, starting from January 11.

However, amid the rise in cases and deaths, there have been high-profile examples of players breaking coronavirus rules over recent weeks.

Manchester City, who have been hit by an outbreak within their squad, launched an investigation into reports of Benjamin Mendy hosting a party on New Year's Eve that included guests from outside his household.

Meanwhile, Tottenham head coach Jose Mourinho was disappointed to learn of a Christmas gathering which saw Sergio Reguilon, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso breach regulations, with West Ham's Manuel Lanzini also in attendance.

The PFA has released a statement, which read: "Following the announcement of a third national lockdown, the PFA would like to reinforce the message that players must follow the current COVID-19 rules and club protocols as a matter of vital importance.

"In a close-knit football environment, the ramifications of any rule breaches are potentially hugely damaging for fellow players, clubs and the game as a whole.

"It is a testament to the hard work of everyone involved that the vast majority of matches have gone ahead as scheduled and the risks to players, staff and their families have been well managed and kept to a minimum.

"Although prospects are brighter due to the vaccine's imminent rollout, players must continue to take the lead and act responsibly and professionally.

"Between now and the end of the season, we ask that you continue to take personal responsibility and follow the lockdown rules, without exception.

"Throughout the pandemic, we have seen that players have a unique position to inspire and influence society positively.

"Your compliance with the national restrictions sets the right example to millions of fans and young people. Following the rules is also the best way to protect your loved ones, your colleagues and their families from harm."

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