Saturday, May 19, 2018

The world is watching Ireland's abortion referendum (and its social media)

As Ireland votes on relaxing its abortion rules, social media outlets like Facebook and Google are facing their first major test of how they can control political interference in the aftermath of the ongoing allegations of vote-rigging in the 2015 Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential elections.
The Republic of Ireland votes on May 25th on whether to relax the country's stringent rules on abortions. Early polls suggested that there was a groundswell of opinion in favour of relaxing Ireland's complete ban on abortions, although more recent polls show a much tighter race.
In an effort to be seen to be proactive, and to avoid the kind of negative fallout they are still dealing with after the US election, the major social media platforms have made some dramatic policy changes: Facebook has banned political advertising around the referendum issue by any groups or individuals based outside of Ireland; Google (which of course includes YouTube) has gone even further by banning ANY referendum ads on its sites. Interestingly, the bans have been met with howls of outrage and derision from anti-abortion ("No") supporters, and nothing but cheers from supporters of the "Yes" vote, which suggests that the right wing were perhaps relying on overseas interference to propagate their message.
Volunteer groups like the Transparent Referendum Inititative are monitoring social media using, among other things, an ad-tracking app called, which was developed for the 2017 British general election, and their preliminary analysis at this stage suggests that some 13% of referendum-based advertising is in fact coming from foreign organizations, principally in the USA, Canada and Hungary, so the problem is clearly a real and substantial one. Another 9% of Facebook ads were anonymous and therefore of unknown source, which is a whole other issues all on its own, and a loophole that Facebook needs to address right now. Granted, in this age of aliases and complex re-routing strategies, it will be very difficult to police the source of advertising, but more can and should certainly be done to try.
Ireland already has some very strict laws on political advertising on traditional media - all political ads on television and radio are banned, and all foreign donations to election campaigns are prohibited - but this has not yet been extended to online advertising, an oversight that has recently started to be addressed with an inter-departmental study group (as it also has in Canada and the USA), but any action will come much too late to have effect on the up-coming abortion referendum.
And in the meantime, as the director of Ireland's Insight Centre for Data Analytics points out: "The world is watching".
As of December 13th 2018, the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill has now passed all stages of the parliamentary process, and has become the law of the land.

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