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Facebook policy chief says 'we all have a role to play' tackling online harassment following Caroline Flack death

Monika Bickert spoke in Dublin about the challenge of identifying and removing harmful content on social media.

Image: Matt Crossick

FACEBOOK’S VICE PRESIDENT of Global Policy has described the death of TV presenter Caroline Flack as “awful and tragic” and said “we all have a role to play” to prevent bullying and harassment online. 

Monika Bickert, a former federal criminal prosecutor in the US, spoke of the challenge of identifying and removing harmful content on social media having worked for Facebook for the past eight years. 

She said the death of 40-year-old, who was the subject of online abuse and trolling in recent months, would be part of discussions internally by Facebook with a view to informing policy decisions. 

Flack was found dead at her London flat on Saturday, with her lawyer later confirming she had died by suicide. She was in the midst of a court case following allegations she assaulted her boyfriend in December. 

The British government has since called for better regulation saying “the industry must continue their efforts to go further” and ensure “robust processes are in place”.

“Deaths like these are awful and tragic and something that we as a society need to make sure we’re taking seriously because harassment is certainly not a new issue and it’s something that is offline as well as online,” Bickert said.  

It’s something that we all have a role to play in making sure that people can communicate safely online. 

“Is this the sort of thing we discuss internally? Absolutely. All the time. We have a group of external safety groups that we work with and this includes dealing with issues like harassment and also separately we have partners that help us with suicide and self-harm prevention.”

“I think we will continue to build our knowledge base, especially as these issues continue to evolve. There are always new trends and new patterns. We will continue to build that knowledge base by having the relationships that we have,” she added.

Bickert was speaking following a talk she gave at the Institute of International and European Affairs. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg held meetings with senior EU officials over the past number of days and called on governments to establish better regulations around online content.

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Vice President for Global Policy Management and Counterterrorism, addressing the IIEA Monika Bickert made the comments following a speech at the IIEA about online content regulation. Source: Lorcan Mullally/IIEA

Asked how offensive and negative comments that appear under images and media articles posted on Facebook are identified or removed, Bickert said it was a “challenge” and one of the “most manual” processes.  

Facebook uses artificial intelligence and machine -earning technology to automatically remove fake accounts and harmful content but removing negative comments and remarks directed at specific individuals is a more difficult task. 

It often relies on negative comments to be flagged by users before it is investigated and removed. It also depends on how words are used, as different phrases have different meanings from country to country, making it more difficult to police. 

“Bullying and harassment, you will see, is one of the areas that is the most manual for us meaning our proactive ability to detect it using tools, and [then] remove it, is an area of constant challenge because it is so contextual,” Bickert said. 

“On bullying and harassment, every six months we put out community standards and enforcement reports where we walk through for each category of content how prevalent is it, how much content we’ve removed in this area and how much is removed before people report it to us. 

“It is a multi-layered approach. First we try to give people tools so they can moderate or control their own experience. Secondly, we provide a mechanism for removing specific instances of content that violate [the rules]. But third, we look for overall behaviours.” 

On Sunday, in the wake of the Love Island presenter’s death, outgoing government minister Regina Doherty spoke of the abuse she has received online as a public figure during her career as a Fine Gael TD. 

“Last night, [with] that gorgeous young lady dying, we all need to take a reality check as to how we deal with people… we need to look at the way we treat each other, the way we speak to each other,” she said on the Sunday With Miriam show on RTÉ Radio 1.

“If I had a euro for every time I was called the c-word in the last month, I wouldn’t need to retire,” she added. 

Former Fianna Fáil TD, Lisa Chambers, also spoke of the abuse she has experienced online saying all politicians get abuse but women are specifically targeted in a different way. 

“It’s a lot more based on the tone of your voice, the colour of your hair, how you dress. I’m pregnant currently so that was coming up a bit as well… there’s an extra level, I think. You have to be so careful about how you come across.”  

Tributes have flooded in for Flack over recent days with many criticising how she was treated online and in the media. A petition started by Flack’s friend and actress Stephanie Davis, which calls for greater protections for those in the public eye, has garnered more than 500,000 signatures online. 

If you need to speak to someone, contact: 

  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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