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Twitter defends response to 'absolutely abhorrent' abuse directed at Ryan family

TD Jack Chambers described their response to the situation as “weak”.

Karen White, Twitter
Karen White, Twitter
Image: Oireachtas.ie

TWITTER HAS DEFENDED how it responds to harmful content after being questioned about racist abuse that was directed towards a family who recently starred in an advertising campaign for a supermarket chain.

Fiona Ryan, her fiance Jonathan Mathis and their young son Jonah feature in a current television and billboard campaign for Lidl.

The family was the subject of a number of abusive online posts after Gemma O’Doherty, a former journalist who unsuccessfully sought to run in the presidential election last year, tweeted about them.

On 7 September, O’Doherty tweeted the following about the ad: “German dump @lidl_ireland gaslighting the Irish people with their multicultural version of ‘The Ryans’. Kidding no-one! Resist the Great Replacement wherever you can by giving this kip a wide berth. #ShopIrish #BuyIrish.”

Several people commented underneath her post – many people defended the family but others directed racist and insulting comments towards them.

Lidl Ireland and members of the public reported O’Doherty’s tweet and Twitter later removed it, saying its content violated the platform’s standards.

However, the situation escalated and resulted in the family leaving Ireland after receiving death threats.

Respresatives from Twitter, and other social media platforms, are appearing before the Oireachtas justice committee today to discuss how they deal with harmful content and if tighter regulations are needed in this area.

Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers asked Karen White, Director of Public Policy for Twitter in Europe, about the Ryan family case directly. He said, in an instance such as this, simply deleting a tweet was a “weak” response.

White said she could not speak about specific individuals but stated: “I sympathise with anyone who has been subjected to harassment and threats”, calling the abuse and threats Chambers described as “absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable”.

White said Twitter has “very robust policies in place” in terms of dealing with abusive behaviour and violent threats. She said the platform has a range of enforcement actions, which have changed over the years.

ryan-family Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis on the Late Late Show last week. Source: RTÉ

She said Twitter previously adopted a “binary system” where “you break the rules, you’re out”, noting that this lead to people creating new accounts or going to other platforms. Instead, Twitter now tries to “educate” people about which rule or rules they have broken and “bring them back into compliance”.

White said accounts are sometimes suspended until certain content is deleted and some 65% of accounts that end up in a “limited state of function”only find themselves in this position once as they then comply with Twitter’s community standards.

She said consistent rule violations, or sending threats, could result in a permanent ban. She added that should a law enforcement investigation be triggered as result of content on Twitter, the company would cooperate.

White said the concerns Chambers raised pointed to a “wider societal issue that needs to be addressed”, noting that removing content won’t change intolerance.

She also spoke about the importance of counter-speech, where users challenge certain views that are expressed on the platform, as one measure of a “multi-pronged approach” to dealing with such content.

Publishers or not?

Chambers described the net response of Twitter, Facebook and Google as to whether or not they are publishers as “a fudge”.

He said they decide whether or not they are publishers on a case-by-case basis, depending on what benefits them most at a given time.

jack Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers Source: Oireachtas.ie

Fine Gael TD Colm Brophy earlier accused the companies of not accepting they are publishers in a bid to make more profits and avoid legal action against them, staying they “have pulled off a trick” by getting people to instead view then as intermediaries.

Brophy said social media platforms probably have “more impact on the world today than all of broadcast media and all of print media combined”, yet when it comes to harmful content “your response to say ‘we’ll take it down’ after the damage has been done”.

In this regard he referenced the circulation of footage a fatal accident that occurred just off the M50 in Dublin in January, as well as the Christchurch terror attack being livestreamed in March.

Dualta Ó Broin, Head of Public Policy for Facebook Ireland, said that in relation to the Christchurch incident, the company is “learning everything we can to ensure that won’t ever happen again” and employing artificial intelligence to recognise and remove such content quickly.

He noted that AI is already successfully used by Facebook to detect and delete harmful content related to terrorism and child sexual abuse.

Ó Broin said Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, has a “zero tolerance for sharing of non-consensual intimate images”. This stance was echoed by the Twitter and Google representatives present.

Ó Broin said Facebook removed 5.4 million pieces of child sexual abuse material globally in the first three months of 2019, as well as 6.4 million pieces of terror propaganda.

He said the company is “subject to rules and regulations as it currently stands” but “open to more regulation and recognise the need to work with governments” in this regard.

“Decisions about content can be complex and we know we don’t always get it right,” he added.

When asked about whether or not their platforms should be subject to stricter regulations, all representatives said this was a matter for legislators, who they would engage with on the issue.

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Órla Ryan

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