Coimisiún na Meán confirmed it is liaising with social media platforms after they were abused by people to organise violent riots in Dublin.
Yesterday, (23 November), when a man committed a random, horrific attack on a group of young children and their carer outside a Dublin city centre school, the media was quick to report what had taken place and what scant knowledge it had of the circumstances of the attack.
As with any unprecedented event, facts were slow to come to light and the media drip-fed information as it was verified to the public via online live updates shared to sites like X. Members of the public with smartphones also spread videos and information – much of it not verified by official sources – on platforms like Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook and TikTok.
Within hours of the crime being committed and the attacker being hospitalised and detained, riots broke out on the streets of Dublin near where the attack had occurred. The drip feed of information from the media and from members of the public caused people to speculate and far-right internet users began to spread theories about the attacker based on his supposed nationality. Some outlets had reported that he was Algerian with Irish citizenship – but this was slow to be verified. Somewhere amid the noise, the truth was lost and so was nuance.
Mobs of what the Government termed “thuggish” and far-right individuals thronged the city, setting fire to buses, looting shops and assaulting Gardaí. Some members of the public who found themselves unwittingly caught up in these scenes heard rioters shouting racist slogans and abusing people.
— Helen McEntee TD (@HMcEntee) November 23, 2023
The question has been asked before many times, but it is being asked again: what is the role of Big Tech platforms in all of this? Videos, opinions and stories all circulated around the web in a matter of hours – people openly expressed hateful views on immigrants whom they linked to the earlier attack. However, they had no recourse for that and their racist comments circulated around for others to see and respond to them.
Most social media platforms have rules against what is known as hate speech, as well as around disinformation and misinformation – or lies. In Ireland, Coimisiún na Meán is the regulatory body that enforces laws around online safety and media regulation, which tech companies are supposed to adhere to. Under the terms of the EU Digital Services Act, large online platforms “are obliged to assess and mitigate a series of risks from the use of their services, including negative effects for public security,” according to the commission. “They are also obliged to notify law enforcement authorities if they become aware of information about an actual or potential criminal offence involving public safety.”
Following yesterday’s events, the commission issued a statement today (24 November) to say that it immediately contacted large online platforms to bring the incident to their attention so they could respond.
In particular, the commission said it expressed concerns to Big Tech providers over things like “imagery or videos of the incident being shared online, both out of respect for the victims and to prevent children and adults from being exposed to scenes of graphic violence online”.
It also said that it flagged to platforms that the incident could be used “to incite violence against individuals or groups”.
“Subsequent to our contact the major platforms responded yesterday evening and we understand that they have activated their incident response plans,” the commission said. “We are having further discussions with the platforms today to gather additional information about how they have responded to this incident and how they will deal with any future issues that arise.”
It is also liaising with the Gardaí as they continue to respond and investigate yesterday’s events. Online safety and the question of regulating hate speech is an evolving matter in Ireland. The Government is in the process of making new legislation.
Earlier this year, we spoke to the then-newly appointed Irish online safety commissioner, Niamh Hodnett, about Coimisiún na Meán’s plans to make the internet more regulated and free of harmful and hate speech, which is defined as sexist, homophobic, racist or violent rhetoric. She said that the right to free speech and expression is not “absolute” and must be balanced alongside other rights like the right to safety.
Commenting further on yesterday’s events, Coimisiún na Meán said that the violent incidents “highlighted the risks of disinformation and misinformation to a modern democracy”.
“We want people to be aware that there tends to be a surge of disinformation and misinformation whenever there is a high-profile incident.” It encouraged people to check that the information they are getting is accurate and reliable, no matter the source.
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