Twitter account behind ‘abusive’ tweet targeting prominent doctor no longer active

Click to play video: 'Health-care workers call for help to stop online hate'
Health-care workers call for help to stop online hate
As Caryn Lieberman reports, while many health-care workers have attracted followers online during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve also become targets of social media hate – Nov 12, 2021

The Twitter user behind an “abusive” tweet against one of the country’s most prominent doctors appears to have deactivated their account following a recent outcry, which saw Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino appeal directly to the Canadian head of the social media giant for action.

Mendicino urged Twitter on Tuesday evening to address a tweet that was widely described by health journalists and health-care workers as “abusive” and a threat against Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association.

Smart had said on Dec. 22 that the social media giant told her the tweet “did not violate their rules.”

“Far too often, public health doctors and frontline healthcare workers are subject to bullying, intimidation, and harassment. An increasing volume of that abuse is occurring online. The pandemic has accelerated and intensified these trends,” Mendicino wrote in a letter to Paul Burns, the managing director of Twitter Canada, in the Tuesday appeal for action against the account.

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“For companies like Twitter, having rules in place regarding the use of a social platform is vital. The public should feel confident these rules will be applied.”

The tweet in question was posted to Smart’s Twitter timeline on Dec. 22 by a user who claimed that “a group of us who can’t stand you have been watching you and your family for weeks,” before asking Smart: “are you scared you are next?”

The tweet also claimed the people watching Smart were “biding our time.”

Mendicino wrote that the tweet appeared to be part of a slew of recent posts offering a “bounty” for people to surveil health-care workers in the hope of catching them breaking COVID-19 protocols.

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Twitter, he said, had erred in allowing the account to remain active and the tweet to remain up.

A spokesperson for Twitter Canada would not say whether the account behind the “abusive” tweet was removed by the company or by the user. But in a response to a request from Global News, the company provided a link to a page on its website explaining the meaning of different account notices.

The notice on the account in question reads: “This account doesn’t exist.”

According to Twitter’s guidelines, that message shows up when an account has been deactivated by the user — not by Twitter, which would have prompted a notice stating the account had been “suspended” or “temporarily restricted.”

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Canadian doctors have been increasingly vocal about the threats and hate directed at them over the past year.

Protests by anti-vaxxers outside multiple hospitals over the summer prompted the federal government to amend the Criminal Code to create a new offence criminalizing the intimidation of health-care workers.

Mendicino cited that law, which takes effect next month, in his letter to Burns.

But Mendicino’s criticism also comes after the government introduced legislation in June promising to tackle online hate, only to call an election just weeks later.

The federal government continues to face questions about the timeline of a promised successor bill as well as a proposal announced in July to create a new digital safety commission that would have the power to regulate hateful content online.

The Liberals had vowed in their election platform to reintroduce legislation targeting online hate within a re-elected government’s “first 100 days,” and that clock is ticking.

READ MORE: Ottawa lays out proposal for digital safety watchdogs to crack down on hate online

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won the federal election with a minority government exactly 100 days ago on Sept. 20, but opted for a lengthy wait between the win and calling back Parliament on Nov. 22.

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Since that return, the government managed to pass four key legislative priorities — including the hospital protest ban — but the promised online hate legislation was not among them.

The Liberal platform did not specify the terms of its “first 100 days” pledge: for example, whether it referred to the first 100 calendar days after winning the election, the first 100 calendar days after the return of the House of Commons, or the first 100 sitting days after the return of the House of Commons.

One federal official, though, said the government’s 100-day clock started ticking on Oct. 26 — the day the federal cabinet was sworn into their new roles.

That counts calendar days, not just sitting days.

That would put the government’s self-imposed deadline to introduce the legislation at Feb. 3, 2022: four days after the House of Commons returns from its winter recess on Jan. 31, 2022.

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