Facebook defensive as TDs don’t like its policies

Facebook has revealed that in one case it notified gardai when a child signalled online that they might self-harm —and defended its policies regarding public figures amid criticism from TDs and senators.

Representatives from Facebook were addressing cyber security for children and young adults before the joint committee on children and youth affairs and faced sustained questioning over its p[olicies, and particularly over whether or not they were robust enough when dealing with issues such as violence and bullying.

However, TDs and senators told the Facebook representatives they did not believe they, as public representatives, were afforded the same protections as private individuals, citing repeated online abuse. Julie de Bailliencourt, Facebook head of safety policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the company was looking into the issue, particularly the abuse suffered by women in politics and public life.

Niamh Sweeney, head of public policy for Facebook Ireland, said the company did not tolerate bullying or harassment. “We do allow people to speak freely on matters — and people — of public interest, but we remove content that targets private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them,” she said.

Following questions from committee members Siobhan Cummiskey, who leads Facebook’s content policy team, said regarding people in public life “there are different standards”, while stressing that Facebook takes a hard line on hate speech and “credible threats”.

Senator Catherine Noone referenced a rape threat she had received, which Ms Cummiskey said was unacceptable.

Senator Noone said: “We in public life are busy people and we are inundated with negativity on social media”. She said politicians were “much maligned, and very unfairly”, adding, regarding online abuse: “I don’t think it’s acceptable, I really don’t. More has to be done in this space, it just has to be.

She said she did not have time to report every instance of online abuse and Ms de Bailliencourt said Facebook was looking at women’s safety and particularly women in politics and public life, adding: “I can guarantee you we are working on these.”

Committee chairman Alan Farrell TD queried why a 2015 video of a fight among teenagers in Balbriggan was allowed to stay on Facebook for a month before being taken down, yet comments underneath the same video could be swiftly removed if they were seen as bullying or mocking.

Ms Cummiskey said the term “fight videos” covered “a vast array of content” and said: “There are instances where people can share pics of videos of people being hit or assaulted in certain circumstances”, referring to places such as Syria. Mr Farrell said the Dublin case was “a brawl” and Ms Cummiskey said she was glad it had been removed.

The company representatives said they aimed to target any harmful material within 24 hours of it being reported and Ms Sweeny outlined one case where a young user of the platform expressed a desire to self-harm.

“It was reported by us in minutes, we reported to guards and they responded within minutes,” she said.

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