Varadkar to contact digital giants over events breaching lockdown laws

In wake of Dublin street violence, Tánaiste concerned at online platform use by groups

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is set to write to major digital media companies to raise concern over their platforms being used to plan events that disobey emergency public health laws.

Speaking after an anti-lockdown event in Dublin city centre turned violent over the weekend, Mr Varadkar said he was “very concerned” that people were forming groups on digital platforms “to find, organise and encourage people” to flout Covid-19 restrictions.

“This ranges from organising gatherings and protests, to encouraging people to open their businesses before permitted to do so,” he said.

While he did not name companies specifically, groups involved in planning the event on Saturday are active on Facebook and on the photo-sharing application Instagram, owned by Facebook.

They are also active on a variety of other social media channels, and screenshots shared online suggest some who attended the event were communicating via private messaging services as well.

Mr Varadkar said he is a “strong believer in free speech”, but that the country was in the midst of “a national and global health emergency”.

“What we saw on the streets of Dublin this week cannot happen again. I’ll be writing to the digital platforms to press them on their responsibility to moderate and remove content that encourages such behaviour,” he said.

The violent scenes drew criticism from across the political spectrum. Sinn Féin’s TD Louise O’Reilly told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics that Saturday’s events were a “slap in the face of frontline workers”. She extended good wishes to the gardaí injured during the violence.

Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway Denis Naughten told the same programme said the incident was a "huge insult to every single frontline worker".

Ms O'Reilly criticised comments from Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, later clarified, in which he initially attributed blame to both the far right and far left for the violent scenes.

“Clearly what happened yesterday was the far right and had nothing to do with the left,” she said.

Right-wing factions

When pressed for detail on what had underpinned Mr Harris’s comments, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she accepted there was not left-wing involvement. She said there were a number of people present who were previously connected to “particular organisations or groups” who may “have moved over to the extreme right now”.

She described the protest as an “illegal gathering which turned into a riot” and said anyone considering getting involved in similar events would face consequences for doing so.

A spokesman for Minister for Culture Catherine Martin, who is advancing an online safety and media regulation Bill, said the legislation would establish binding codes for how social media services will deal with user-generated content on their platforms.

He said it is already law that an online service becoming aware of illegal content on their platform must swiftly remove that material. He said, where appropriate, Government departments and State agencies are in contact with social media companies about such matters.

A spokeswoman for Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.