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Twitter promises to tackle internet trolls before Christmas

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Twitter promises to tackle internet trolls before Christmas

After more than 18 months of campaigning by the Epilepsy Society, a senior director at Twitter has given MPs his word that they will put a stop to flashing images that could pose a danger to people with photosensitive epilepsy on the social media platform.

And he has promised that the problem will be resolved before Christmas.

Nick Pickles, Senior Director of Global Public Policy Strategy, Development and Partnerships at Twitter was under interrogation by the Draft Online Safety Bill Joint Committee. 

Members were keen to know why Twitter had not tried to safeguard Zach Eagling, then eight years old, and other followers on Epilepsy Society’s Twitter account when they were targeted by a sustained and co-ordinated attack by internet trolls. 

Zach has epilepsy and cerebral palsy and has become the figurehead of the charity’s Zach’s Law campaign to bring this type of abuse within reach of the law and to protect people with photosensitive epilepsy from all flashing images on social media.

Would you step in to help?

Dean Russell MP asked Nick Pickles: “If you or Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter)  were in the same room as a child with epilepsy and cerebral palsy who was under attack, would you step in to help them?”

When Nick Pickles confirmed that they would, Dean Russell asked him to explain why Twitter hasn’t stepped in to stop flashing images being targeted at people with epilepsy. And he asked for Nick Pickles’ confirmation that Twitter would work with the Epilepsy Society to have the issue resolved before Christmas.

Nick Pickles agreed, replying: “I will make it a priority for our product team to see if there is any technical way we can automate detection of flashing images. If other companies have developed safety technology for identifying triggering images then we would also be interested in sharing that technology. 

“The trouble is if someone like Twitter builds it, other smaller companies may not be able to build it themselves as well. It would be good if the Bill could facilitate sharing that technology.”

He also told the committee that it was critical that the law should ensure perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice. 

And, speaking in a later evidence session, Dame Melanie Dawes, CEO of Ofcom, promised that the Epilepsy Society would be able to make a "super-complaint" should the use of flashing images continue. Ofcom is set to take responsibility for internet regulation as part of the Online Safety Bill. 

Working collaboratively

The Online Safety Bill meeting followed on from a round-table meeting held the day before by the Epilepsy Society, to see if there were ways that the social media industry could work collaboratively to tackle issues around flashing images.

It was the first time representatives from the industry had sat down together with the charity to tackle online harms targeted at people with epilepsy. Delegates included: Twitter, TikTok, Reddit , Google, YouTube, the content-producing library, GIPHY, and experts in the field of digital technology.

And they agreed that pooling resources and sharing data could most effectively accelerate the speed at which machine learning – or Artificial Intelligence – is able to address the problem of flashing images, whether posted maliciously by internet trolls or innocently by users, without intent to cause harm.

They also agreed that a shared warning system between the platforms could stop users who are banned on one site from resurfacing on another platform.

The Epilepsy Society has been working individually with representatives from the social media companies to try to shut down the trolls at source, and also to provide more effective safeguarding for people with epilepsy across all the platforms.

Safety technology

Web designers, Gravitywell, told the round-table how they have been working with the Epilepsy Society to develop technology to teach a piece of artificial intelligence – AI - how to detect and prevent the spread of flashing images on social media that could trigger seizures.

Nicola Swanborough, Head of External Affairs at the Epilepsy Society welcomed Twitter’s long over-due commitment to tackling internet trolls and flashing images but said it was incredible that a social media giant would be calling out to other companies to share safety technology.

“I would expect a multi-million dollar platform such as Twitter to be leading the way with cutting-edge technology to safeguard its users,” she said.

“While it is encouraging that Mr Pickles will be talking to his product team to see whether there could be any automated detection of flashing images, we would have hoped this would have been an ongoing piece of work that goes beyond a conversation. We have been asking Twitter to resolve this for more than 18 months. 

“We are extremely grateful to web designers at Gravitywell for voluntarily dedicating time and resource to tackle this issue, simply to stop people like Zach from being targeted maliciously.
“We feel cautiously optimistic that with legislation and regulation, social media will become a safer space for people with epilepsy.”