Social media company Twitter has defended its response to racist tweets that have forced a mixed-race family to leave Ireland.
Twitter appeared before the Oireachtas Justice Committee to discuss online harassment and was asked by Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers about the abuse suffered by actress Fiona Ryan, her fiancé, and their son, after they appeared in advertising for supermarket chain Lidl.
Ms Ryan and her fiancé, Jonathan Mathis, have said they left Ireland over messages about their family on Twitter.
Karen White, Director of Public Policy, said the platform has a number of enforcement actions against content that violates its rules, and that these actions have changed over the years.
“Previously, at Twitter, we had a very binary sort of ‘you're in, you're out’ system; you break the rules, your account is suspended, but it would lead to people trying to create new accounts, or indeed that behaviour being taken to other services, trying to find new platforms,” she said.
Ms White said Twitter now locks accounts for a period of time, asks users to delete offending material, and can ask them to verify their email and phone number.
“The objective there from these enforcement actions is really to try and educate people, to bring them back into compliance. And what we've actually found from some of those measures, is that people who are in this limited state of functionality, 65% of those are in that stage just once. So certainly the enforcement actions are having a real-world impact,” she said.
However Mr Chambers described Twitter’s reaction as ‘weak’.
“Do you not agree that for someone who's been made subject to that content, and the consequences of it, that a simple deletion of that tweet, is a really weak enforcement consequence for the person who's brought such hatred to their lives?” he asked.
Ms White said progress related to this behaviour is “incredibly tough”.
“I think there's a wider societal issue that needs to be addressed here. Simply removing the content from a service is not necessarily, in all instances, going to change intolerance that we see online,” she said.
Ronan Costello, Public Policy Manager for Twitter, said harmful content can generate ‘counter speech’.
“When someone tweets something that the majority of Twitter users here in Ireland or another country find distasteful or offensive, we often see, and I'm sure a lot of our users see, that the number of tweets that reject the premise of the tweet, reject its content, and thereby create a majority around that which far outnumbers the number of people who agree with the original tweet,” he said.
However Mr Chambers said this suggests the need for a ‘mob response’ and that Twitter has missed the point.
“Was that family worth it for that counter-speech that you're trying to defend? Was their experience?” he asked.
“I'd argue that your platform should have stopped it, before we even had to have this counter-speech conversation. I accept, perhaps for other broader debates, counter-speech is important, but not when a family's at the centre of the issue,” he said.
- By Digital Desk staff
The Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said officers are identifying suspects involved in online abuse directed at a family, who have been forced to leave Ireland after receiving a death threat.
It comes after a TD slammed online platforms over their handling of online harassment.
The Ryan family were targeted with a series of racially-abusive messages after taking part in a recent supermarket ad.
Fiona Ryan, her partner Jonathan, who was born in Brazil, and their son Jonah are moving to England as they fear for their safety after receiving a series of racially abusive messages and death threats after appearing in a Lidl advert.
Fianna Fáil's Jack Chambers brought up the Ryan family at the Oireachtas Justice Committee where Facebook, Google and Twitter are being grilled by TDs and Senators today.
He said removing the offensive tweets was "weak" and asked Karen White from Twitter about it.
Mr Chambers asked: "If someone with a huge amount of followers brings hatred to a big audience that promotes a racist message to a huge audience, does a simple deletion of that rectify and remedy the consequences for a person who feels they have to leave the country?"
Ms White said: "I would sympathise with anyone who has been subjected to targeted abuse or harassment of violent threats whether it's online or offline. It's abhorrent and unacceptable.
"I want to reassure the committee that we have very robust policies in place in Twitter around hateful behaviour and hateful conduct and violent threats when we are made aware there is a range of enforcement actions we can take."
She added that "simply removing content from a service is not in all instances going to change the intolerance".
Ms White said: "There is a purpose there in trying to educate that particular user that they have broken the rules.
"Consistent rule violations will result in permanent suspension."
Mr Chambers replied: "Your net response is to broaden the fudge, that seems to be your public policy response to a lot of issues: It is complicated, it is multinational, we are platforms not publishers.
"I think when you bring it down to the family that was affected on your platform, the response from Twitter was to delete the tweet and that was it. Surely your enforcement mechanisms can be improved."
At the Gardaí's new Diversity and Integration Strategy, Commissioner Harris said officers are investigating.
He said: "We remain in contact with the Ryan family and we are now in the process of identifying individuals we believe are suspects in terms of offences that may have been committed.
"Then we will go through a process of interviewing them, gathering evidence and reporting that matter then to the DPP."
The three-year strategy includes improved ways of reporting, with members undergoing specific diversity and hate crime training.
However, the Garda Commissioner said specific hate crime legislation would help.
The Commissioner said: "Undoubtedly hate crime being recognised in terms of the very corrosive effect it has on victims should have a legislative basis, and we would support that."
The Garda's new definition of hate crime is "any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person to, in whole or in part, be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on actual or perceived age, disability, race, colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender”.