Hundreds of thousands across social media react angrily to Premier League LGBT campaign

The Rainbow Laces campaign ran for two match days in December. It's part of a three-year partnership with Stonewall.

(CNN)When the Premier League kicked off its 'Rainbow Laces' campaign to support LGBT people this month, English football's highest division probably didn't expect to be flooded with abusive comments and feedback. But that's what happened.

Right across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, negative comments and reactions, which were described in one post as "vile," inundated social media feeds.
One tweet said, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" While another widely liked Facebook comment read, "Take politics away from this beautiful sport."
Other comments aimed at clubs supporting the campaign read, "Crystal PalGay," "SouthGay FC," and "Why are they [Premier League clubs] forcing us to be homosexuals??"
    Whereas in a number of sports and countries, gay athletes have been happy to be open about their sexuality, that hasn't been the case in English football. At the time of writing, in the Premier League there's not a single gay player, who has made his sexual orientation public.
    And when you look at social media, can you blame them, asked Robbie de Santos, who is Director of Sport of Stonewall, which is Britain's leading LGBT charity.
    "In male sport there is a real absence of openly gay or bi men -- we have to create a better environment that is truly LGBT inclusive at all levels," he told CNN Sport.
    This month the Premier League and Stonewall, have collaborated on the 'Rainbow Laces' project — to try and stomp out homophobia in the game.
    'Rainbow Laces' goes far beyond Premier League football, but there is no denying that top-tier English football opens the campaign up to a global audience. The project was inaugurated in 2013.
    A large publicity campaign has been in full swing and the rainbow symbol — synonymous with the LGBT movement — has become ubiquitous across English football's highest division.
    It has cropped up on LED boards, armbands on captains of teams, corner flags and even the laces of footballers over the course of two match weeks.
    In an attempt to provide a snapshot into how the campaign was received across social media, CNN Sport took a look at Premier League clubs, who rebranded logos in LGBT colors on their Facebook profile pages.
    In no way is this an exhaustive demonstration into how 'Rainbow Laces' was treated on social media but arguably it gives some insight into how fans and football followers reacted to soccer endorsement of LGBT rights.
    CNN Sport focused on gauging the number of likes and angry reactions -- because they were the reactions most frequently used by Facebook users.
    It is important to outline that reactions on Facebook, labeled in our graphic as "other reactions," include love hearts, laughing faces, crying faces and shocked faces. Many of the posts we monitored did also receive a high number of these reactions too.

    Offended by the rainbow flag? 'Get a life.'

    Both the Premier League and the various clubs that comprise it have worked hard to plug the campaign effectively. And while 'Rainbow Laces' seems to have been warmly welcomed by a vast majority of people, social media paints a more complex picture.
    In a world of reactions, likes, emojis and hashtags, things can get messy pretty quickly. Just how telling is an angry face emoji?
    Well, put it this way, there is no option to dislike something on Facebook, but if you were aiming to show your dissatisfaction with something, the angry face is probably the route to go down.
    Our analysis found that as many as 35,000 profiles reacted angrily to the wider Premier League's rainbow-themed logo change on Facebook.
    And on a club level, when Aston Villa showed support for the campaign by also re-branding its logo on Facebook, more than half of the reactions were negative. That's almost 60% of the accounts that engaged with the post.
    When Arsenal and Manchester United did the same thing, more than 50,000 accounts also reacted negatively — again with angry faces.
    A club with a smaller fan base, Burnley, also had close to 50% negative reactions.
    In fact, across the 19 Premier League clubs who rebranded its logos in solidarity with the LGBT campaign, there have been more than 200,000 negative reactions on Facebook.
    One caveat: A few of the rebrands are from previous campaigns and are slightly older, but many are from this month's 'Rainbow Laces' initiative and provide insight into how LGBT issues are received online.
    Despite promoting and supporting the campaign across social media, Sheffield United were the only top flight team not to rebrand their logo on Facebook.
    Of all the clubs CNN monitored, many had a sizable proportion of negative reactions but both Aston Villa and Burnley had the most.
    Burnley confirmed to CNN Sport that around 1,000 people were banned and blocked from Facebook during the promotion of the Rainbow Laces campaign.
    "We received an unprecedented number of negative engagements during the campaign -- far exceeding anything the club has previously received on its Facebook account," the club's Media Manager, Darren Bentley said.
    "It appears this was a targeted response from international followers, which isn't something we have encountered in the past.
    "In total, we believe only around 5% of all the negative comments came from users who had actually 'liked' our official page, and could reasonably, therefore, be considered as followers of the club in some capacity.
    "Any extreme instances of abuse were reported to Facebook. This was in the region of 50 comments. Even though we have experienced negative reactions, we have also had a lot of positive comments, addressing any issues raised in an intellectual and thoughtful manner," Bentley said.
    CNN Sport also reached out to Aston Villa but hadn't received a response at the time of publication.
    While the 'Rainbow Laces' campaign was going on there were two incidents of homophobia at Premier League grounds in December.
    Everton is currently investigating claims of alleged homophobic chanting in its home win against Chelsea, while Brighton threw out two visiting Wolves fans for homophobic abuse.
    Paul Camillin, Brighton and Hove Albion's Head of Media and Communications, condemned any form of homophobic abuse and called it "ridiculous" that someone should be ostracized from the game simply because of their sexuality.
    "If you're offended by a rainbow flag, you need to get a life," he told CNN Sport.
    Historically, homophobic chants were very common a Brighton's away games, according to Camillin. He acknowledged that while things had improved, there was still a long way to go and said there were still "massive overtones" of homophobia on social media.
    So, this all goes much further than emojis. And abusive comments, posts and tweets have been littered across social media.
    Stonewall said its 'Rainbow Laces' campaign was all about making sport "everyone's game." De Santos said the abusive comments and reactions were "really upsetting to see."
    "It's a reflection of the issues in society more generally and not just football," he said. "When you see that level of hatred, it just reminds you why we do this -- I don't think it truly impacts the individual clubs but instead reaffirms why this is really important work," de Santos told CNN Sport.
    Leicester City's goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel wears a rainbow themed captain's armband.

    'Rainbow laces is for life not just for Christmas'

    The Premier League is adamant that it wants LGBT inclusion and to make sure football is a sport for everyone. What they perhaps didn't anticipate was the global role they would have in fighting for it — including on social media.
    "We respond quickly to any discriminatory responses on our social media posts and have our social media team have been monitoring comments -- they remove, report or hide offensive posts," the Premier League told CNN.
    "We also work closely with social media platforms and have met with Twitter and Facebook to discuss and understand how we can work together to tackle unacceptable behavior taking place online."
    While it acknowledged the detractors, the Premier League were keen to emphasize that the campaign has largely been met positively, describing it as having "fantastic support."
    It's an opinion that is shared by Stonewall's Robbie de Santos.
    "For every step towards equality, you do have detractors ... we do generally see a much more positive response compared with the negativity," de Santos said.