Northern Ireland news

We need to call time on wild west of social media abuse – Naomi Long

Naomi Long said those who have reported online abuse to social media companies are often told it doesn’t contravene their community standard. Photo: Michael Cooper/PA Wire.
Rebecca Black, PA

Justice Minister Naomi Long has said more action is needed to call time on the “wild west” of social media abuse.

Ms Long was speaking in the Assembly, weeks after DUP MLA Diane Dodds was targeted by trolls over the death of her young son.

A cyber-flasher who exposed himself on video call software Zoom during an online vigil for murdered jogger Ashling Murphy was also condemned.

SDLP MLA Mark Durkan asked Ms Long if she had plans to engage with social media organisations over trolling and abuse on their platforms.

He described the targeting of Mrs Dodds as a “new all-time low”.

With telecommunications currently a reserved matter, a new Online Safety Bill is being considered at Westminster.

Mrs Long said that, while she did not agree with everything recommended, she agreed that time needed to be called on the “wild west online”.

She said she has told the British government the bill “does not go far enough”, particularly around anonymous accounts on social media.

She said if such abuse was published in a newspaper or a magazine, the publisher would be held accountable.

“I see no difference between that and Facebook and Twitter, particularly given the sophistication of their algorithm, the fact that they know the age profile of people they are dealing with to targets ads at them,” she said.

“More needs to be done across the board to protect everyone from online abuse.”

The minister, who has spoken out about being targeted by trolls herself in the past, said online abuse and harassment is “completely unacceptable”.

She said Mr Durkan was “absolutely right to reflect the absolutely heinous abuse” that Mrs Dodds faced, describing it as “some of the most callous and calculated abuse of an individual that I have seen in some time”.

She told MLAs: “I have engaged with social media platforms where I have had the opportunity, for example I engaged with Facebook as part of the online hate crime event which was held in 2020, and have reflected my concerns directly too about how social media platforms deal with online abuse.

“However, this is a much bigger issue than any department alone can address, and it does require, I believe, not just a UK-wide effort, but, I believe, a much wider effort including our European partners in terms of trying to challenge the abuse online and how social media platforms are managed.”

Ms Long said those who have reported online abuse to social media companies are often told it doesn’t contravene their community standards.

“I think what’s obvious from that is that self-regulation of online services has failed and companies now must be held liable for the systems they have created.

“I believe fundamentally that people have a right to free speech but that right to free speech comes with a responsibility to exercise it in an appropriate way.”

Sinn Féin MLA Jemma Dolan raised Sunday’s hijacking of an online vigil for Ms Murphy, who was murdered while running by a canal last week, by a man who exposed himself.

Mrs Long described it as “the lowest of the low”.

“That is an individual who I think the authorities need to take particular interest in and deal with robustly,” she said.

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