Facebook’s policies allow public figures to be targeted with calls for their death

24th March 2021 - Senator John McGahon

Leaked Facebook guidelines which allow users call for the death of public figures is deeply troubling and mind boggling; a Fine Gael Senator has said.

Senator John McGahon was speaking following a report from the Guardian newspaper that revealed Facebook’s secret guidelines in relation to public figures.

A leaked document of Facebook’s bullying and harassment policy explicitly allows for “public figures” to be targeted in ways otherwise banned on the site.

Under the reported guidelines, a public figure is defined as anyone with a claim to fame, whether it’s a sports star, someone with a large social media following or someone covered regularly in news.

The definition of the December 2020 policies is wide ranging: all politicians count whether they are office holders, elected or standing for election, as does any journalist who is working in the public sphere.

They are considered to be permissible targets for online abuse because Facebook wants to ‘allow discussion, which often includes critical commentary of people who are featured in the news’.

The report on Facebook policies says private individuals cannot be targeted with ‘calls for death’ but public figures simply cannot be ‘purposefully exposed’ to such calls: The Guardian reports it is legitimate, under Facebook’s harassment policies, to call for the death of a minor local celebrity so long as the user does not tag them in to the post.

“This is absolutely mind boggling and deeply troubling,” Senator McGahon said.

“Facebook posts directed at people, whether they are private or public figures, have repercussions and in some cases very devastating and tragic consequences.

“It was deeply troubling to learn recently that the Tánaiste needs armed garda protection after receiving a number of credible death threats and other abusive messages, many of which were sent online.

“Other nasty and threatening messages have been posted about the Tánaiste on Facebook in the past, which is deplorable and must be stopped. Some are in political groups set up by Sinn Féin on Facebook.

“Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, can also be a forum for online trolling, with retired footballer Ian Wright subjected to threatening abuse on the platform by a Kerry teenager who said he would give the football pundit “a death sentence”.

“In recent weeks, we will have all watched the tragedy that was the Caroline Flack documentary, the online hatred and death threats that was directed at her was horrific, but it was allowed. The same goes for racist abuse that has been dished out at Manchester United star Marcus Rashford and others – it is commonplace.

Senator McGahon said, “When we ask ourselves, how has online discourse around the world become so toxic online, here is a perfect example as it is deemed completely permissible by Facebook

“Facebook is allowing and actively encouraging users to target and abuse public figures.

“This cannot be allowed to continue, Facebook exists in every country in the world and they cannot determine what is considered to be fair game or not in terms of online abuse, what constitutes a conspiracy theory, Governments now need to realise and understand the power that Facebook is wielding behind closed doors and these leaked guidelines are just the tip of the iceberg,” Senator McGahon said.

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