Demos Daily: Gambling and Social Media

Much has been made of the return of the Premier League this week, and of the return of sports-based betting. With the majority of sporting events having been cancelled over the past few months and their physical venues closed, the gambling that accompanied them also ceased. However, online gambling continued, and data from the Gambling Commission has shown that many of those who would normally bet offline are now trying out online gambling for the first time, while those already engaged in online gambling have increased the time or money they’re spending. A key driver of online gambling is social media, both through the growth of online communities and targeted advertising. In April this year, online gambling impressions in the UK were shown to have tripled compared to last year.

In 2016, Demos published Gambling and Social Media, examining the social media communities based around gambling, and whether social media was facilitating harmful gambling related behaviour.

You can read the executive summary below, or the full report here.

Executive Summary

Over the last decade, where and how we live our lives has profoundly changed. The rise of social media has changed what information we encounter, whom we know and talk to, and how we talk about our lives, experiences and problems.

Like so many other parts of our lives, over the last decade gambling has moved online. People use it both to gamble, but also to connect with others who do so; sharing their wins and losses, discussing new opportunities, and also their struggles and problems with gambling. However, little is known about how the rise of social media, and more broadly the digital world, has changed gambling and those that do it: how it is promoted, the norms and beliefs that people have about gambling, the kinds of conversations about gambling that take place, and the kinds of communities of gambling enthusiasts that form online. Especially, it is unclear whether social media is either promoting or confronting problematic and harmful gambling behaviours.

This paper presents the results of research by Demos to understand the relationship between gambling and social media within the UK. A short scoping study, the research aims to understand the scale and nature of conversations related to gambling that now happen across a number of different spaces within the digital world, the extent to which they can be researched, and overall to scope the potential for future research opportunities in this area.

The report combined in-depth qualitative research of social media with new, in-house, large-scale analytic techniques, both carried out between 21st of September to 16 October 2016, to produce:

1. The Big Picture

A birds-eyed view case study of the gambling ecosystem on Twitter, the different communities that constitute it, and the behaviour of accounts both dedicated to promoting gambling and those providing help for problem gamblers.

2. The Detailed Picture

Three qualitative case studies of social media-based gambling communities, in order to understand the significances, contexts and meanings that sit underneath the numbers and statistics.

3. Review of Measuring Harmful Gambling-related Behaviour

An analysis of whether social media reflects and facilitates possible harmful gambling and gambling-related behaviour, and its role in forming, propagating or challenging these habits.

The main findings of this research are:

Gambling seems an important part of online life

A very large number of users are using social media and online forums to discuss or interact with gambling. Volumes of data across the three platforms we examined were extremely high:

• 877 Twitter accounts were identified as dedicated to producing content promoting gambling. They sent over 78,000 Tweets during the period of study; two per minute.

• People following the three most prolific pro-gambling accounts would have received 8,500 Tweets, or one every four minutes.

• Seven million people around the world follow at least one of these accounts. Within the UK, over 900,000 do so, or one in 20 of the UK’s fifteen million regular Twitter users.

• A free-to-play gambling app on Facebook had more than 14,000,000 likes, and gambling tips pages on Facebook had tens of thousands.

• A problem gambling website hosted more than 300,000 posts.

Online gambling communities have formed with distinct interests and influences

Social media has allowed new communities to form related to gambling, sometimes around specific apps and software, some around particular affiliates, tipsters and content-producers, and others around problems and issues, including problematic gambling.

These communities are radically varied, and each adds a new social dimension to the behaviours at their heart. Each propagates different kinds of information, encourages different kinds of activities, and establishes different norms and values.

On Twitter, distinct communities were algorithmically determined. In many cases, each looked very different from one another. These include:

• The largest community, of 140,000 members, tended to follow tipsters and affiliates rather than the main bookmakers. They also use Twitter more intensively for gambling-related activity than any other community. On average they follow twice as many gambling accounts and send more Tweets mentioning gambling accounts than any other community.

• The second largest, of 127,000 members, tended to follow the major commercial bookmakers, but were less intensive in their use of Twitter to talk about gambling or follow those that do.

• A smaller number, roughly 4,600, of members who share responsible gambling advice and information.

On Facebook, coherent communities had formed around gambling apps, others around tipsters, affiliates and commentators.

Some online communities seem to entrench gambling as a natural part of sports appreciation

The vast majority of discussions relating to gambling that were analysed related to sports. Across Twitter and Facebook, explicit gambling offers, tips and odds are wrapped up in broader discussions about sport – the transfers, big matches and tactics. About a quarter of Tweets sent from bookmakers, and 15% of messages from Facebook tipsters, were not about gambling, but are jokes and updates from a range of different sports, and commentary on matches and events. This may contribute to the normalisation of gambling as a natural part of being a sports fan, and of appreciating sport.

Some users seemed to use the platforms studied in a way that could facilitate harmful gambling behaviour

The qualitative studies of Facebook pages and gambling forums painted an important image of the effects of serious gambling problems. In some cases, this was handled in a sensitive way by those facilitating the community. In others, however, those messages were ignored or deleted. Similarly, a small number of the 900,000 accounts used Twitter in ways that we felt evidenced ‘intensive’ gambling activity or interest. Over six weeks:

• 1,787 accounts (0.2%) were ’quite intensive’: sending more than five Tweets, and following more than 10 gambling accounts

• 412 accounts (0.04%) were ‘more intensive’: sending more than 20 Tweets, and following more than 30 gambling accounts.

More research is required to link this online activity to offline gambling habits. There were important patterns throughout the most intensive accounts. Most tended to follow tipsters and affiliates, rather than the major commercial bookmakers, and many were linked to each other – themselves forming a smaller community of users who use Twitter to more intensively discuss gambling.

Gambling care online focuses on providing a place for people to seek help when they needed it, rather than reaching those who were not actively seeking help

Usually, a Twitter user must follow a specific account, a Facebook user must like a certain page, or a user must register to a certain forum, to receive the information therein. The evidence showed that ‘responsible gambling’ accounts, dedicated to sharing information and advice about how to avoid or stop problematic gambling, are not followed by the same people who follow pro-gambling accounts. Due to this disconnect, it is unlikely that responsible gambling messages will reach the same people who use Twitter as part of an enthusiasm for or interest in gambling.

However, the gambling care forum was an important venue for those seeking out help and advice about their gambling problems and habits. It is an accessible space with an attentive and support community where people share (largely anonymously) lengthy, detailed and apparently deeply felt accounts of their situation, struggle and experiences.

Social media has allowed new forms of gambling and the promotion of it to emerge

Social media is changing what gambling is, and how it is done. This poses new challenges and risks to regulators, as they have to evolve current definitions and frameworks to reflect both a rapidly changing technological landscape and the habits of those who use it.

Especially important challenges are:

• New digital currencies and apps: A genre of online apps allow people to undertake activity similar to gambling. Users do not play for cash prizes, but they are encouraged to pay real money for new, app-specific digital currencies, whether ‘coins’ or ‘credits’, on which the platform operates.

• New voices: The digital world has allowed new voices, sometimes influential and highly followed, to promote gambling. Most important are the ‘tipsters’ (also known as affiliates) – organisations and individuals who share specific betting tips to their followers. We identified 572 tipsters and affiliates, and they included some of the most vocal producers of content that promoted gambling.

Both of these are significant parts of the gambling ecosystem online, yet neither clearly falls within the current regulatory framework. Apps operating with digital currency look and feel like traditional gambling products, but because the winnings do not produce prizes in conventional cash, they are not considered to be licensable gambling. Likewise, tipsters do not themselves handle money, and so are unregulated and have no formal safeguarding responsibilities.

It should be noted that linking gambling-related behaviour online and gambling related discussions online to actual gambling behaviour is not in the scope of this study.