Social media company Twitter has said it has suspended a total of nine accounts it thinks are linked to an anonymous account run by ex-Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris.
Twitter has confirmed the move, saying that platform manipulation is strictly prohibited under the Twitter Rules.
“The account you referenced was permanently suspended for violating the Twitter Rules on platform manipulation and spam,” the company said.
“We also suspended eight accounts linked to the account referenced for violating our policy on platform manipulation and spam. Using technology and human review in concert, we proactively monitor Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them – we will continue this approach to platform manipulation and any other attempts to undermine the integrity of our service,” a Twitter spokesman said.
Mr Harris, a former senator, was sacked by the Sunday Independent as a columnist on Thursday after he admitted to company management that he was operating an account behind a fake name.
Sunday Independent editor Alan English on Thursday night said: “We regard Eoghan Harris’s involvement with this account as a betrayal of trust and as such his contract has been terminated.”
The account, which used the handle @barbarapym2 has since been permanently suspended by Twitter, along with eight other Twitter accounts the company believes to be linked to it.
Mr Harris admitted running the Barbara Pym account, which he said was operated by a “team of five or six people”. He declined to name these people, saying he did not want to “get them shot.”
Since it was set up, the Barbara Pym account has repeatedly posted very strong anti-Sinn Féin tweets and has attacked certain members of the media, including Irish Examiner political correspondent Aoife Moore.
“This account sent me sexualised messages about whether Mary Lou McDonald ‘turned me on’, the size of my arse and called me a terrorist from the month I started at the Examiner. Since then, I’ve had to go to counselling and the guards,” Ms Moore tweeted on Thursday after Mr Harris’ sacking was announced.
In one tweet sent last October, the Pym account tweeted “Moore thinks she is sniping safely from behind Derry hedges, but she’s actually sniping from an ROI hedge in The Examiner and her SF backside is sticking up in the air.”
In June, Ms Moore tweeted that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had just taken her seat as the first female leader of the opposition. “So that’s what turns you on?” the Pym account replied.
Responding to the controversy, Mr Harris denied the account was anything other than a benign platform to allow him and five or six others to connect with Northern loyalists.
He said that as the former curator of the Barbara J Pym Twitter account, his efforts were designed to oppose Sinn Fein’s campaign to bully Northern Protestants into an Irish Republic.
“Given Sinn Fein’s sinister links, the other contributors are loathe to use their names. But I had no problem in admitting to editorial colleagues that I contributed to the site. That’s because I am proud of the tweets which are mostly addressed to Loyalists, the most recent of them urging restraint on protests against the Protocol and assuring working class unionists that most of us in the Republic have no malign agenda against their heritage and political freedoms,” he said, speaking to Sarah McInerney on RTÉ radio.
Ms McInerney said she had muted the Barbara J Pym account as it had sent her abusive messages. Writer and commentator Emma DeSouza also noted she had been "targeted" by the account.
Defending tweets that have been described as “misogynistic,” Mr Harris said it was a benign site and denied there was any accusation that he sent “sexualised messages”.
“These were robust message to tough political people who richly deserved criticism” as, in his view, they acted as Sinn Féin enablers, pawns or stooges.
He said that far from being a misogynist, he one of the few journalists to publicly support IRA rape victim Mairia Cahill down the years, including in her recent controversy with Alan Rusbridger.
Meanwhile, lawyers representing a Manchester author have confirmed they complained to Twitter about the anonymous account linked to Mr Harris, threatening legal action if its owner was not disclosed.
A piece by Paul Larkin called “Defining the sub polity that is Northern Ireland” was published by thein late March. Several days later, the Twitter handle @barbarapym2 posted comments referring to Larkin.
A statement from KRW Law, which represents Larkin, said: “The post referred to our client’s article as ‘provo, sectarian poison’ and asked ‘why was Larkin not asked to tone down the tribal rhetoric?’
“We demanded that Twitter immediately provide details of the user and profile connected with Barbara J. Pym @barbarapym2 for the purposes of litigation.
“We cautioned the data controller of Twitter that should they fail to provide us with the information within 21 days, we would issue proceedings to obtain an order against Twitter for this information in the High Court,” KRW Law said.
“We note the confirmation of Eoghan Harris as Barbara J Pym and will continue to pursue all available legal remedies in respect of this behaviour, including libel proceedings.”