Sinéad McSweeney: Taking Twitter through the tough times
Interview: The Twitter Ireland MD on trolls, fake accounts and referendum advertising
Sinéad McSweeney in Twitter’s HQ in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Sinéad McSweeney in Twitter’s HQ in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Twitter Ireland’s managing director Sinéad McSweeney is no stranger to controversy. When she took on the role as head of public policy in 2012, Twitter had 200 million users and was already being criticised about its approach to abuse on its platform.
Fast-forward to December 2016, when she took on the role as managing director of Twitter’s Irish division, and the company was still locked in a battle with online trolls, while also dealing with questions about its future.
But McSweeney is used to dealing with difficult situations and standing her ground. A qualified barrister, she studied law at University College Cork and at King’s Inns before getting called to the Bar in 1993.
She never worked as a barrister, though. Instead, she took a job as a Dáil recorder, a move that not only started her in the civil service, but ultimately decided her career in politics.
“ I did the [legal] qualification with a view to practising,” she says. “At different points – when I worked at the Attorney General’s office, when I worked with Michael McDowell in the Department of Justice – you come close to particular litigation or a legal issue and you think, ‘maybe I should go down and try out the Bar.’ But I haven’t had that feeling in recent years.”
After three years in the Dáil as recorder, a chance meeting with Bertie Ahern led her to persuade him that Fianna Fáil needed her talents on their team. She became part of the party’s election campaign for 1997, which ended with Ahern being elected taoiseach for the first time.
McSweeney went on to work as an adviser to the attorney general, and subsequently moved with Michael McDowell to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he regained his Dáil seat in 2002.
In 2004, she took up the role as head of communications for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, a role that presented many challenges.
“It was an organisation that was in transition at the time, but it was in transition under an incredibly strong, charismatic and dynamic leadership. I was supported from the off by colleagues within the police service, many of whom are still friends today,” she says. “There were challenges and there were difficulties but I never felt unwelcome within the organisation.”
Perhaps more opposition came from outside the organisation itself. The DUP described her appointment at a political one, but McSweeney didn’t let it faze her.
“Obviously, as always happens in Northern Ireland, there were people who will for their own political reasons choose to take a side on an issue. But, within the organisation as I saw it was a group of people who were committed to doing whatever was required to bring change. People like [former chief constable] Hugh Orde, Sam Kincaid, Peter Sheridan, were all coming from many different walks of life and the experiences were all welcoming and supportive.”
There was clearly no shortage of big stories to deal with while in charge of the press office in Northern Ireland. Shortly after she took up the role, the Northern Bank was robbed, with £26.5 million taken.
“I still remember getting the call,” says McSweeney. “It was about one o’clock in the morning. We had a 24-hour press office in Belfast. The press officer on duty was saying to me: ‘There’s been a robbery, £26 million.’ To which my sleepy reaction was ‘£26 million? Is there that much money in Northern Ireland?’
“I hung up and went back to sleep, until I woke at about 6am and thought, ‘I didn’t dream that. That was real,’ and had to hightail it into the office.”
After four years with the PSNI, McSweeney moved back to Dublin to head up communications for An Garda Síochána.
Despite never officially using her legal qualification, she doesn’t regret her decision to study law.
“It’s my philosophy around lifelong learning. It’s not about the information, it’s about the skills, the learning skills you acquire, where to find answers, how to analyse them, how to structure an argument,” she says.
“Those skills will stand to you no matter what path you embark on subsequently. That’s something I’m passionate about both in terms of the development of people on the teams here in Twitter Dublin, but also when it comes to childhood education, even the things that Richard Bruton is doing around the junior and senior cycle. That’s really interesting. They’re zoned in on [the issue of] what skills are we giving people as opposed to what knowledge are we giving people, because knowledge is everywhere.”
Twitter has been through some tough times recently. The company struggled with growing its user numbers, even as rival Facebook was hitting milestone after milestone. In 2016, the messaging business cut 9 per cent of its staff worldwide, a move that saw hundreds of jobs go, some of them in Dublin.
It also precipitated the departure of Mark Little as Twitter Ireland’s managing director, after which McSweeney stepped into the role.
“I think what we have seen here in Twitter Dublin in the last 12 to 18 months is just what true resilience looks like. The company itself has shown itself to be resilient but I think this site has shown itself to be incredibly resilient,” she says. “We have moved from what were quite dark days in early 2017, where we had lost colleagues, to a situation where the place is just buzzing.”
Her original move to Twitter came from a desire to do something new. McSweeney had already embraced the social media platform in her role within the Garda.
“I’d been a bit of a one-person band within the public service, highlighting the fact that, if the Garda could be on Twitter, anyone could,” she said. “So it was something really new but drawing on skills that I had.”
She is not one to shy away from difficult situations; given her career path, there have clearly been plenty.
“One of the things that struck me most working in police comms, both in Northern Ireland and here, is that there are people who are projected into the public eye not because of something they did but because of something terrible that happened to them or their families,” she says.
“They literally go from anonymity to the front pages because of something ugly and tragic, and usually violent. To be a witness to that pain and trauma, and to have to try and protect those people as best you can from public scrutiny, from invasion of privacy is really, really hard.”
She says we can sometimes underestimate the human cost of such incidents.
“One of the things that stuck with me was that, in some particularly high-profile cases, when the evening news programmes and the tabloids had moved on, the police and family liaison officers were still dealing with those families. Over the course of seven or eight years, it was that happening time and time again that I found hardest.”
While she no longer has to deal with such cases, Twitter itself isn’t immune from that human cost. The abuse carried out using the platform can be damaging.
“The stats are only part of the story. There’s no point in some senses saying that way less than 1 per cent of all Twitter content is abusive, because that means nothing to the one individual who is sitting with their notifications blowing up with people abusing them,” says McSweeney.
“That’s why we have to take a qualitative approach to this instead of saying ‘that’s it, we’re hitting our numbers’. This is a side of the job that will never be done, in the same way that bad behaviours in every walk of life will never be 100 per cent eliminated.”
The company has made 30 changes to its product, processes and policy in the past 18 months in an effort to deal with the problem of abuse. Last week, Twitter took another step in the fight against troll behaviour, announcing that it will make accounts that displayed certain patterns of behaviour less visible in communal areas on the site, such as conversations and search.
“I’ve been here six years and I have seen a sea change in the way we address this issue internally. The resources we have dedicated to it internally, the level of priority it is given within the company and then, on the external-facing side, we’ve had really significant updates to our policies,” she says.
“I think there will always be more to be done, because people who are intent on misusing the platform, abusing others, harassing others will continue to find new ways to do it.”
But McSweeney warns against losing sight of the fundamentals of what makes the internet – and Twitter – a good thing: the ability to have real-time diverse conversations across a range of issues.
Sometimes, those conversations can become contentious. The social media platform has escaped some of the controversy surrounding the Eighth Amendment because it has not accepted ads on the upcoming vote from the outset.
That wasn’t a conscious decision for Ireland. Twitter has – or had, until recently – a global policy that meant it didn not accept advertising on abortion services or advocacy services.
“That policy changed within the US about 12 months ago. We took a decision that we wouldn’t change it here in terms of abortion advocacy services. I think that decision has proven to stand up.”
It has meant that, at least in one aspect, Twitter has managed to stay out of that particular fight. Google and Facebook have each taken steps to address the issue during the campaign, with Facebook banning foreign-funded ads on the referendum and Google saying it would reject all advertising on the issue, regardless of where it come from.
McSweeney is adamant there has been nothing concerted about troll activity on the website around the referendum. Fake accounts are dealt with on a global level, with Twitter stopping around 3.1 million per week. But some will always slip the net. It’s like a virtual game of whack-a-mole for Twitter. As soon as one account is removed, another springs up.
“We have looked at and reviewed the activity here in Ireland on numerous occasions in the last few weeks, and we have not seen any evidence of concerted spam activity directed towards the referendum,” McSweeney says.
“I believe that social media has a role in highlighting issues, facilitating engagement. And, of course, we wouldn’t use it, we wouldn’t have advertisers using it if it didn’t have impact.
“But I think at the same time we have to be clear that decisions such as how to vote in a referendum are decisions that people make in a different way from when they’re deciding which insurance company to choose or what holiday to go on. And I think we have to factor that in and give our citizens more credit as voters from our citizens as consumers.”
With all that going on, you would think that McSweeney has little chance for downtime. But she still manages to pack a lot into her days, spending time with her family (she married Irish Times columnist and barrister Noel Whelan in 2000 and they have a nine-year-old son), her involvement with wellbeing movement A Lust for Life and, when she gets the chance, kickboxing.
She’s also a fan of crochet. “It’s a great release,” she says.
In recent times, things have improved a little for Twitter too. Not only has the company recorded two profitable quarters in a row, but it has increased its active users, a major source of criticism previously.
McSweeney doesn’t want to revisit the darker days when Twitter was shedding staff and its future looked uncertain.
“I tend not to be a person who looks back and says, ‘oh I would have done that differently.’ It’s more, what have I learned that influences what I’m going to do going forward,” McSweeney says.
“It’s not a case of what do I want to change, but what do I want to ensure never happens again. And I never want to see the faces and the downward shoulders of people from the last days of 2016 and the first weeks of 2017. I want them to remain in the distant past.”
Name: Sinéad McSweeney
Position: Managing director, Twitter Ireland
Lives: Dublin. She is married to barrister and Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan, and they have one son.
Something you’d expect: She signs up to everything social media-related as new services spring up.
Something that might surprise: She crochets in her spare time and finds it a “release”. Mind you, that’s when she’s not pursuing another interest – kickboxing.