Now that the Referendum on the 8th Amendment has formally been called and a polling date set for May 25th we can all expect to see a serous uptick in the number of posters, leaflets and canvassers for both sides. We can also expect to see a notable increase in the number of online adverts targeting us as potential voters hoping to shift our views one way or another. The difference between the online adverts and the other methods described? The online adverts are and will remain through the course of this referendum completely unregulated.
The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland and the Referendum Commission being headed by High Court Judge Isobel Kennedy have both said they will not be addressing the issue of online adverts. This should be of serious concern to all voting members of the public, especially after the recent reports about data breaches in Facebook. The fact that the Pro-Life group has retained Kanto who are affiliated with Cambridge Analytica to run their social media advertisement campaign. This presents a serious issue due to the possibility that this group possess some of the data from Cambridge Analytica and could well be using this upcoming referendum.
Furthermore, Facebook has thus far taken no steps to ensure that those outside of the state cannot purchase online political adverts targeting people within the state. This in effect means that there is a possibility that there will be an outside influence within this referendum. Thus far the only group that is remotely keeping track of the online adverts are the Transparent Referendum Initiative, a group of volunteers who are using open source data to track and publish all ads pertaining to the referendum.
This current system leaves massive gaps open for anyone who has the slightest interest in the outcome of this referendum to expose and influence the outcome. There are approximately 2.5 million Facebook users in Ireland out of a total population of 4.8 million. Each one of these users can be targeted and swayed by outside groups, groups who under the normal rules of referenda and elections are not permitted to play any role in our democracy.
In fact in the normal course of events, anyone who is not legally permitted to vote in Ireland cannot actually donate to a political cause in the state, so why is this glaring gap being left open? Part of it has to do with the fact that our laws governing elections and referenda are outdated. They simply were not designed to deal with the interconnected world that we live in today. However, they are capable of addressing online adverts if they wanted to, meaning that they have made a conscious decision not to.
This could be a result of the fact that Facebook does not lend itself to being policed. They as a company have told us for years that we should trust them to with our data, and that they will make sure that nothing illegal will happen on their platform. Both these claims have been thoroughly discredited with data breaches and the many cases of illegal content being shared on the site (be it hate speech or sharing of various acts of violence). With this in mind it is vitally important that the state step in and fill the void. Facebook has not shown itself to be a responsible referee and given the power it wields it is shocking that it has not been brought under control as of yet.
The simple fact is that this referendum will be one of the most contested one in the memory of many of us. It will be fought on all fronts and rules are going to be bent by all involved. That the Commission tasked with making sure that these rules are enforced is just avoiding one of the biggest and arguably one of the most influential battlegrounds. It is not to say that this could swing the vote one way or another but given how tight this vote is expected to be one would expect that no aspect of this vote would be left unsurprised. That is clearly not the case.
Irrespective of what side in this vote (if any) that you support, you should be worried about this. Online adverts have been seen to be used to remarkable effect during Brexit, the Trump election and also less effective efforts were made during the French and German elections. With all the focus around them for the last two years it is almost criminal that the Irish government knowing that this referendum was coming has chosen to ignoring the online sphere. Germany has already taken the lead in trying to tackle online political adverts, by fining Facebook for each day one that is false is left on the site. This shows that policing the online sphere is not impossible.
Within the last week Facebook has announced that they will being the process of policing political adverts by seeking more background information from those that wish to post them. Given the timing of this announcement (following Facebook’s announcement that they are send high level representative to Government committees worldwide), one can be forgiven for having some lingering suspicions over how sincere this response is. There is a good chance this is simply a part of a large damage control operation. In the end, self-regulation is not the same as a formal set of rules enforced by a state.
Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor