Facebook and Twitter face barrage of criticism before Oireachtas committee

TDs and Senators accuse the companies of allowing anonymous accounts make false and misleading statements

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter faced a barrage of criticism before an Oireachtas committee on Tuesday over anonymous accounts, trolling and micro-targeting.

TDs and Senators accused both companies, particularly Twitter, of undermining democracy and coarsening public debate by allowing anonymous accounts make false and misleading statements with neither fact-checking protections or any sanction.

Representatives from both tech companies were appearing before the Oireachtas committee on housing and local government to discuss the general scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill, specifically its proposals to regulate political advertising during election campaigns.

However, members of the Oireachtas broadened the debate to launch broadsides against what they argued was both platforms facilitating trolling, online abuse and the propagation of untruths, often under anonymous accounts.

The charge was led Paul McAuliffe of Fianna Fáil, his party colleague Senator Mary Fitzpatrick and Fine Gael Senator Mary Seery-Kearney.

Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin, Cian O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats, and Senator John Cummins of Fine Gael were also very critical of the policies and practices of both companies.

Trolling

The use of anonymous accounts on Twitter was described as leading to a disgusting and horrible culture of trolling by Mr McAuliffe.

Ronan Costello, senior public policy manager of Twitter, defended the practice, saying the pseudonymous account feature was vital in environments and countries where it was dangerous for certain Twitter activity to be carried out in people’s real names.

Ms Seery-Kearney said that this Bill, which focused on paid advertising, would not capture the real problem.

“While we increasingly regulate paid advertising what we will see is an increase in non-paid activity. The more outrageous, the more eyeballs that we get on screen, the easier it is to make sellable advertising for micro-targeting. There is a business model behind all this. I feel this section of the Bill is fiddling while Rome burns.”

Ms Seery-Kearney said she had set up a new Twitter account on Monday night under a different name and all she needed was a mobile phone. There was no accountability or responsibilty, she argued, and this afforded an opportunity for people to spread lies.

Politicians

Most of the criticism was directed at Twitter, but Facebook was also criticised by Ms Fitzpatrick and Mr O’Callaghan for its practices of not conducting any fact-checking and for micro-targeting.

Dualta Ó Broin of Facebook said it recognised the safety of politicians was a matter of concern, and Facebook had conducted workshops with politicians and was engaging on an ongoing basis.

On the legislation itself, both companies welcomed the Bill and the establishment of an Electoral Commission. Both had some issues with the definition of political advertising.

Facebook also raised some issues about the Irish laws being potentially inconsistent with EU laws.