February 12, 2017 / 12:49 PM / 7 months ago

Top Italian official says Facebook must do more against hate speech

FILE PHOTO: Italy's lower house President Laura Boldrini smiles at the end of the first day of consultations with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinale Palace in Rome February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

ROME (Reuters) - Facebook must do much more to stamp out hate speech on its site, the president of Italy’s lower house of parliament said, warning that rising abuse on various social media was being fueled by fake news.

Laura Boldrini, herself often the focus of sexist insults and online threats, complained to Facebook managers in November about hate speech on the social network and put forward several proposals on ways to deal with the problem.

“Two months after our meeting, they have done nothing. They have not even written to me about what I said. Good manners would have expected at least a reply,” Boldrini told Reuters in a gilded, art-filled room in the parliament building.

She said she would write an open letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week reiterating her call for a more effective and timely policing of his site.

“His platform risks becoming home to dangerous predators ... the company has to take responsibility for this,” she said.

In a statement, Facebook said it was committed to battling hate speech and fake news, and was working closely with various institutions in Italy to deal with cyber bullying.

Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube and Microsoft agreed last May to an EU code of conduct to tackle online hate speech, pledging to review the majority of valid requests for removal of illegal abuse within 24 hours in Europe.

However, in a report released in December, the European Commission said only 40 percent of hate speech was being reviewed within 24 hours, with wide variations from country to country. In Italy, just four percent of hate posts were being removed within a day, the report said.

MALICIOUS

Boldrini, who is the third most senior official in Italy behind only the president and the president of the upper house Senate, says she is regularly deluged with abuse and in November published a selection of the offending comments.

“Boldrini, you are a handicapped whore,” says one. “Why has no one killed this terrorist,” says another.

Despite flagging such insults to senior Facebook managers, many still remained on her homepage, she said.

One of her requests was for Facebook to open a full office in Italy to deal with its 28 million users in the country. At present, Italian complaints are handled at the company’s European headquarters in Ireland, but Boldrini said the firm had not told her how many of its employees there spoke Italian.

Boldrini, a former spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency, said many of those who abused her on Facebook had been spurred on by malicious, fake news articles about her.

These included stories about her saying migrants should get housing before locals, that Italian women should wear the veil or that her long-dead sister was making money from migration.

“Fake news and hate go together. It is not being done as a joke. They are looking to discredit their adversaries. It is short-circuiting democracy,” she said.

Boldrini last week launched a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of false information, saying they raised a threat to ordinary people - such as lies spread deliberately about vaccinations for children or health scares.

“Fake news is harming people and spreading hate. Hate is poisoning the well,” she said.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Susan Fenton

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