Tech firms are ‘washing their hands’ of online ‘lynch mobs’, says Foster

Inaction of Google, Facebook and Twitter is allowing anonymous users to ‘harass women’

Outgoing Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster  said the ‘anonymity of social media gives people a sense of invincibility. I want to tackle that.’ Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Outgoing Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster said the ‘anonymity of social media gives people a sense of invincibility. I want to tackle that.’ Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has launched a blistering attack on social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, accusing them of washing their hands of “lynch mobs” systematically harassing women online.

The recently ousted Democratic Unionist Party leader said online trolling is one of the biggest obstacles to women taking part in public roles in the modern era.

And, in a possible hint at her plans after she stands down from the helm of her party and Northern politics within weeks, Ms Foster said she would work “with every fibre in my being” to eradicate barriers put in the way of female leadership.

“Many people ask me what’s next for Arlene Foster, and I’m frankly not that sure at the moment,” she said.

“But with every fibre in my being I will work to ensure the obstacles to women in public life are removed by the roots.”

Ms Foster added that “one of biggest obstacles to being a woman in public life today is the constant social media trolling.”

“The threats and the lies do take their toll, not just on you but those around you,” she said.

Debate is “quite legitimate” in the public arena and it is “perfectly acceptable for someone around the table to say they don’t agree with you and here is why”, she told an online webinar organised by Queen’s University, Belfast.

“What is not acceptable is for people around the table to mark out an opponent and then enlist the services of an anonymous online lynch mob to systematically target and harass women about their relationship status, their children, their partner, their appearance and the list goes on.”

Ms Foster said the “anonymity of social media gives people a sense of invincibility.”

“I want to tackle that,” she added.

Verification process

“There must be a verification process where the platforms at least know who really owns the account. I want the social media companies to recognise their responsibilities to women in public life.

“Whether it is Google, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter or SnapChat, they can’t just step back as the publisher and wash their hands of the problem.”

Ms Foster likened the inaction of social media platforms to fully police online abuse to “a government building roads without speed limits or engineering firms making heavy plant without guardrails”.

The outgoing first minister, who is set to step aside from her leadership of the DUP later this month before relinquishing her role as co-head of the power-sharing Stormont Executive next month, was speaking at a live-streamed discussion entitled Reflections on Female Leadership.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, also speaking at the event, said the “sad reality” is that women in leadership roles in all walks of life “are not treated equally or fairly” by society.

“We are routinely overlooked, women are ignored, are denigrated and are attacked, because, simply, because they are women.”

Women in public life are held to a different standard than male colleagues, she told the webinar, describing it as “constantly swimming upstream against a constant undercurrent of misogyny and abuse.”

“Some of the commentary around women in political leadership is reprehensible,” she said.

“You constantly face the derogatory comments about your appearance, threats of physical and sexual violence, death threats, threats to our families, all because we have dared to put ourselves out there to lead, represent and make our voice heard.”

Ms O’Neill said she daily sees the “devastation” it causes to people’s lives.

“It’s not okay, it’s simply not okay and we need to show people it is not okay,” she said.

“The fact that we are still talking in 2021 about making sure 50 per cent of our population are treated as equals is a real travesty. It a sad indictment of society.”