Social media companies don’t deal with hate speech and racism in a consistent and realistic manner. That’s the only opinion one could walk away with after watching representatives of Facebook and Twitter defend their company’s policies in front of an Oireachtas committee last week. Spokespeople for the companies seemed to demonstrate a mixture of naiveté and lack of awareness about what exactly takes place on their platforms.
The recent attacks on the Ryan family were brought up as an example. Having been targeted for harassment by racists on social media, the family has been forced to leave the country as a result. When this was pointed out to her, Karen White, Director of Public Policy for Twitter in Europe, said this is “abhorrent” and “unacceptable”.
But astoundingly she went on to then say that:
I do want to reassure this committee that we have very robust policies in place at Twitter, particularly around abusive behaviour and hateful conduct and violent threats.
Given the experience of activists and victims in recent times, White’s statement is, quite simply, wrong. Again and again the same people are stirring hatred across social media. With a sizeable following at their fingertips, it doesn’t take much to whip their supporters into a frenzy. Just ask the Ryans.
The response of another Twitter representative, Ronan Costello, was to suggest that “counterspeech” serves as an effective deterrent against the spreading of hate speech. He contended that this was so because:
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
Thus the buck is passed to the average person to combat hatred. Meanwhile the social media giants who facilitate the spreading of hatred in the first place can continue with their head-in-the-sand policies when it comes to protecting users from hate speech.
Facebook is no different than Twitter. It continues to allow far-right pages and groups to use the platform to organise, propagandise, and recruit. A number of similar Irish-based groups exist. There the racism is rife. Mixed in are conspiracy theories about population replacement and the government’s culpability in it.
In one such group seen by The Beacon, the Roma have come in for particular abuse. Users have accused them of “dragging us down” and called them “Skum [sic] of the earth”. Others have said that gangs of Roma are making parts of their town no-go areas. Evidence for this claim is, of course, lacking.
Yet these pages and groups flourish. And all because Facebook won’t take a stand which may effect its bottom line.
We’ve already seen what this eventually culminates in. It starts with words and ends with a massacre. Christchurch and, just last week, Halle in Germany is where we end up. Something has to be done. And social media companies have to be part of the solution. Because right now they’re part of the problem.