‘Wild West’ social media firms criticised for response to harmful content

Facebook, Twitter and TikTok appeared before the Oireachtas media committee

Social media companies were lambasted for their track record in dealing with abusive content on their platforms at an Oireachtas committee hearing on Wednesday.

Fianna Fáil TD Niamh Smyth, who chairs the Oireachtas media committee, said platforms were "like the Wild West, anything goes" and she did not accept some of their statements on the swiftness with which harmful content is removed.

Previous committee witnesses from child protection agencies have “repeatedly” cited companies’ reluctance to remove harmful content and “a lethargic attitude” to doing so, Ms Smyth said.

Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin described Twitter's abuse reporting processes as "scandalous", while Sinn Féin TD Johnny Mythen said he did not think there was a public representative who had not had a parent contacting their constituency office with concerns about a child suffering as a result of online content.


Representatives of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok were appearing before the committee as part of its ongoing scrutiny of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

Dualta Ó Broin, Facebook’s head of public policy in Ireland, said the company did not have a “strict turnaround time” for removing content that violates its community standards, but the aim was to do so “as quickly as possible”. More content is being removed through artificial intelligence (AI) mechanisms before it is even reported by users, he said.

Facebook also does not have a record of the number of individual complaints made in the State, he told the committee, adding that it was “working to provide that”.

AI interventions

Ronan Costello, senior public policy manager for Twitter in Ireland, said Twitter had become "much more proactive" on content moderation, with 68 per cent of the content removed now done so as a result of AI interventions. This lessens the proportion that relies on user reports.

“Hopefully into the future, that burden on users will reduce further and further,” he said.

Mr Costello also said Twitter was working on a more nuanced approach to account verification, "by potentially rolling out different kinds of labels", and that this would help mitigate the abuse that people perceive is coming from pseudonymous accounts in particular.

He was speaking in response to Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin, who said reporting abuse to the company often did not result in the content being removed.

“Your systems just don’t work,” he said. “It’s a disgrace what’s going on.”

Mr Costello said he was happy to follow-up with Mr Griffin on any specific incidents.

Theo Bertram, TikTok's director of government affairs and public policy for Europe, said, of the 89 million videos removed from TikTok in the second half of last year, 94.2 per cent were taken down before a user reported it, 83.3 per cent before they attracted a single view, and 93.5 per cent within 24 hours of their creation.

“I think length of time is important. I think it is right that you hold our feet to the fire on that, but I also think – for our platform, at least – the number of views is probably even more significant,” Dr Bertram said.

Chilling effect

In Twitter’s opening statement, Mr Costello argued that the legislation’s proposals to impose financial sanctions, block services and make senior management of companies criminally responsible for breaches of the law would set a “global benchmark” that would have a chilling effect on other regions of the world.

“Already we see countries imposing punitive financial penalties or make the business environment difficult for platforms with unwelcome positions on freedom of expression,” he said.

“Service throttling and blocking is used to limit citizen access to news, information, and minority or opposition perspectives.”

Twitter warned the EU and the Government to be “mindful that the regulatory models and penalties they enact will be exported across the world to service political agendas of all kinds”.

In his opening statement, Mr Ó Broin said solutions to the issue of cyberbullying extended beyond content removal.

"While we will continue to do our part in addressing and removing this kind of content from our platform, online bullying requires a multifaceted, multi-stakeholder approach. That is why we have also invested heavily in Ireland's National Anti-bullying Research and Resource Centre in DCU."

Fine Gael Senator Micheál Carrigy welcomed Facebook’s financial support to the anti-bullying centre, but said he did not believe it was sufficient and social media platforms needed “to take more responsibility” to ensure their platforms were safe places.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics