Varadkar wrote to social media giants to tackle illegal pandemic gatherings

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar wrote to four of the world’s biggest technology companies asking them what more they could to tackle illegal gatherings and the spread of misinformation during the pandemic.

Mr Varadkar sent letters to Facebook, Twitter, Google, and TikTok in the wake of violent protests on the streets of Dublin earlier this year.

He said the events were “clearly planned” using social media platforms and private messaging services and that he had been “appalled” by what happened.

The Tánaiste said that this behaviour by a “selfish few” had undermined the sacrifices that millions of Irish people had made over the last year.

He said he was a “strong believer in freedom of speech” but that this was a well-organised “conglomeration of anti-mask, anti-vaccine, and anti-lockdown groups” using technology to organise themselves.

In responses to the Tánaiste, Facebook said they too were “appalled” by the violence and that they deeply appreciated the efforts of gardaí, healthcare workers, and those working on the front lines.

The social media giant said an internal investigation had taken place after the protest leading to the removal of 20 Facebook groups, 15 pages, and two Instagram profiles.

This was done where groups, pages, or profiles had “repeatedly shared harmful information and debunked claims about Covid-19 or vaccines”, their letter said.

In a response letter, Google said they took the issues in the Tánaiste’s letter “very seriously”.

‘Takedown’ measures

However, they said that their services were not “currently known for being favoured” for the running of illegal protests or events in Ireland.

It said: “We have not been notified that our services were used for the purpose of organising the recent protests in Dublin.”

Google also said they were committed to removing content and Covid-19 misinformation that poses harm to users from their platforms.

The company also offered to run a discussion and workshop for the Tánaiste and his team on how they manage harmful content.

In the Tánaiste’s letter, the creation of a new Online Safety Commissioner was also flagged to reduce the “spread of illegal and potentially harmful content”.

Mr Varadkar said the Government wanted ‘takedown’ measures that were timely and effective, and a way to add further categories of harmful content.

In response to that, Facebook said they were concerned by delays in the passage of legislation governing online activity and possible “conflict” with EU directives.

Facebook said that the Government should consider prioritising and expediting the implementation of the EU’s Audio-visual Media Services Directive.

And they also suggested that the Government should consider “pausing the national online safety measures” to ensure both Irish and EU law were aligned.

Google said they were supportive of the legislation and that they were continuing to engage with government to help progress it.

They said: “Getting this legislation right will be crucial to addressing harmful online content into the future and we look forward to [ITS]speedy adoption.”

Asked to comment on their records, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media were now leading on new online safety laws and queries should be directed to them.

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