Connecting more than 1bn people in the world and enabling them to share their information and views is a lofty goal that is going to come with its share of problems. But the recent suicides of Irish teenagers due to online bullying has hardened public opinion on social networks in a country where Facebook has centred much of its global operations.
This week the social network opened its doors to media to explain how it tackles cyberbullying and privacy issues at a time when the issue of bullying has finally become a headline topic, for all the wrong reasons.
The tragic deaths of schoolgirls Ciara Pugsley (15) and Erin Gallagher (13) after being subjected to abuse from bullies on Latvian website Ask.fm shocked the Irish public and many laid the blame at the door of social networks in general.
The situation wasn’t improved by the death of Fine Gael Minister of State Shane McEntee, TD, just before Christmas, which many attribute to negative comments and anonymous cyberbullying on social media sites.
A quarter of Irish nine to 16-year-olds have been bullied online, a DIT and Kids Online study recently revealed. The study, published in time for Safer Internet Day 2013, found that 69pc of parents of victims have no idea their children have been bullied online.
Beating the bullies
At a briefing at Facebook’s international headquarters in Dublin, where Facebook employs more than 400 people, Patricia Cartes, Facebook’s privacy and public policy officer, said the social network has deployed considerable technological and human resources aimed at ensuring safety online.
“We are trying to protect freedom of speech but also draw the distinction between context and harm and offence. There is a whole legal framework in place in many countries and we take this into account when looking into context. For example, holocaust denial is illegal in Germany but not in Sweden.”
She explained that Facebook employs a user operations team to monitor different countries to ensure no laws are broken. “Users are at the core. Without them there would be no developers or advertisers. It is paramount that they are protected and compelled to return to Facebook because they have good experiences and are in a safe environment.”
But human nature being what it is, it is hard to know what people will do next and often lines are crossed.
Cartes said that across the social network tools are in place to enable users to protect themselves via a reporting tool. If a person has been reported by another user over an offensive photograph, for example, she said Facebook will block their ability to upload photos for a certain amount of time and once they’ve read the rules and show they can engage responsibly they will get their rights back.
She explained that as well as manual processes, Facebook has developed automated systems to detect transgressions. The social network has user operations based in California, Texas, Dublin and India that follows the sun in terms of ensuring safety. In Ireland, the teams work across 25 countries and 12 languages.
“The teams are localised because it is important to understand the current affairs of a country and ensure timely support.”
She said abuse comes in many ways, starting with spam and fake accounts to deliberate cyberbullying.
In terms of harassment, she said that report/block tools exist to stop contact cold. “If someone is being harassed they could not just report but also block the connection and the bully would never be able to see them on the site again. In fact, it cuts the connection at both ends.”
More subtle reporting tools exist to ensure users inform each other if something inappropriate is posted. “There is the granular ability to remove specific pieces of content,” Cartes said. “For example, if a friend posts a nudity photo that offends you or if it is a photo of you that you didn’t want published, you can report that rather than have the other person blocked. You can simply make it clear that you don’t want them engaging with you in that manner.”
Cartes said that coming up with anti-bullying/harassment solutions is an important part of R&D work at Facebook.
“We have developed social reporting tools that gives people the opportunity to speak with friends and tell them to please remove that content. On photos, for example, there are options to report or remove tags before the photo of a person in which they are tagged can go ahead.”
Cartes said the objective is to actively teach people the difference between right and wrong and to get them to understand their own behaviour.
“If someone reports the tag the person who posted the offending picture will be told and directed to the Safety Centre and will be encouraged to read the rules and the safety tips.
“People will have privacy concerns about photos, for example, and would rather not get tagged and over time the behaviour teaches the other people to behave responsibly.”
Cartes said Facebook has had to learn fast about user safety and is constantly being challenged to stay on top of things.
“Abuse comes in so many ways and our different teams could have a different number of issues to handle. For example, during the London riots the number of vandalism reports spiked and we seriously had to up our game. It varies from one market to the other but user operations and safety is one of our bigger teams and we endeavour to provide 24 x 7 support.”
Cartes said online bullying can be harmful psychologically and since the social reporting tools had been applied there has been an increase in people finding solutions to disputes. “It has been a game-changer,” she said.
Facebook’s UK and Ireland director of policy Simon Milner said the company doesn’t disclose how many people work within user operations but described it as one of the biggest groups in Facebook and said this group will absorb a considerable number of the 100 new jobs announced in Dublin earlier this week.
Milner said protecting children is of paramount importance and the social network has to be vigilant.
“For example, the number of children lying about their age to join Facebook. In most cases parents know about and actually helped their children to lie about their age and it is really hard for us to identify where that is happening. We rely on reports from other users but it’s not a silver bullet solution. If a parent has helped their underage child join Facebook the chances of parents reporting it to Facebook are zero.”
Milner pointed to research by Childnet International, which indicated that one-third of eight to 11-year-olds have Facebook accounts.
Apps on Facebook
In the tragic cases of the teenage suicides in Ireland in recent months, Latvian website Ask.fm was indicated as the main platform bullies used because they were able to behave anonymously.
Milner confirmed that Facebook hadn’t removed the Ask.fm app from its platform because it didn’t actually breach Facebook’s rules.
He pointed out that if users accessed the Ask.fm app on Facebook the social network’s rules would ensure that real names were used so there could be no anonymity. However, if the users accessed Ask.fm outside of Facebook they would be anonymous.
“Ask.fm are very different to the way we would operate and they allow anonymous connecting. However, their app on our social network has to adhere to our rules and that means that information sharing through the app on Facebook is tied to the user’s name and if you engage with the app on Facebook our reporting mechanisms are automatically applied.”
Milner reasoned: “If we had removed Ask.fm from our platform it more than likely would have left users in a less safer place.”
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