Sinn Féin urged to tackle ‘culture of online abuse’

FF Senator uses social media screengrabs to evidence derogatory and ‘nasty’ comments

Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin says the page mentioned by Malcolm  Byrne is “not run by the party and from memory we have publicly dissociated ourselves from it”.   Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin says the page mentioned by Malcolm Byrne is “not run by the party and from memory we have publicly dissociated ourselves from it”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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A Fianna Fáil Senator has called on Sinn Féin to address what he says is a “culture of online abuse” after he compiled a selection of derogatory comments made by party supporters in recent months.

Malcolm Byrne has written to Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin and provided screengrabs from an unofficial party Facebook group that he gained access to.

Among the posts are extremely derogatory comments about politicians belonging other parties. A number of posters make very abusive personal comments about former Labour TD Joan Burton, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

In one post, a man asks if Sinn Féin will vote to get out of the EU in order to send “all the foreigners . . . back to their own countries”.

In his letter to Mr Ó Broin, Mr Byrne provided a representative sample of screenshots from a Sinn Féin Facebook group from last February and March.

“I accept this is not an official group and you cannot be held personally responsible for what is posted by individual members and supporters. But it does have thousands of followers and the comments often drift from policy to being personally abusive and nasty,” Mr Byrne said.

‘Homophobic and racist’

“You will note some of the comments are homophobic and racist and others target refugees. It is often female politicians who receive the worst abuse . . . There are a number of remarks wishing death on leaders of other political parties and encouraging people to sneeze or cough on Simon Harris so that he would contract coronavirus.”

He added: “Rarely, someone challenges on these remarks and those who do will often be abused for so doing.”

Mr Byrne told Mr Ó Broin he believes there is a “culture of online abuse within Sinn Féin and a failure to address it at senior levels of the party”.

“I recognise that you personally are abhorred by this but given the scale of the problem, I’d encourage you to take action on this.”

He also thanked Mr Ó Broin for the “strong line you took” in relation to a case in Wexford last week where a man left Sinn Féin after anonymously abusing others online.

‘Orchestration’ of abuse

Mr Byrne said he disagreed with assertions that “there is no orchestration of such abuse by Sinn Féin members or supporters”.

In his response, Mr Ó Broin said the accusation that his party “organises or coordinates” online abuse “is simply not true”.

“To suggest otherwise is a groundless accusation,” he said. “We have very strict social media guidelines that apply to members which we apply when cases are brought to our attention or when we come across such cases.”

He said the page mentioned by Mr Byrne was “not run by the party and from memory we have publicly dissociated ourselves from it”.

“Unfortunately given the unregulated nature of social media and the easy access to anonymity and fake accounts and pages, this is virtually impossible to control,” he said, adding that “we need to change the law to make cyberbullying a criminal offence and to have online platforms treated as publishers” to create a more regulated and safer environment for all.