Facebook to block all foreign ads about Eighth Amendment referendum

8 May 2018

Facebook will be working with transparency campaigners ahead of May’s referendum. Image: Denis Mikheev/Shutterstock

All ads related to the Eighth Amendment referendum from advertisers outside of Ireland will be forbidden as of today.

Growing concerns about transparency on social media around political events show no sign of abating, but major player Facebook has announced a step towards obtaining solid accountability from campaigners.

The platform is banning all ads relating to the Eighth Amendment referendum that originate outside of Ireland. The referendum will be held on 25 May and Facebook’s decision today (8 May) means any ads related to the referendum that don’t come from organisations legitimately registered in Ireland will be blocked. Ads funded from abroad through a legitimate organisation in Ireland will not be prevented.

Facebook to roll out new rules from today

The company also hinted that the same rule would be put in place for other democratic processes in Ireland, such as general elections.

Facebook said: “Concerns have been raised about organisations and individuals based outside of Ireland trying to influence the outcome of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland by buying ads on Facebook. This is an issue we have been thinking about for some time.

“Today, as part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland. We feel the spirit of this approach is also consistent with the Irish electoral law that prohibits campaigns from accepting foreign donations.”

Wider integrity strategy

Facebook added that the new vetting of election ads is part of its wider plan for election integrity on the platform. There are other tools in the pipeline (which will not be ready in time for this referendum), including new advertiser registration and verification rules.

The company said that the change will apply to ads it determines “to be coming from foreign entities which are attempting to influence the outcome of the vote on May 25”.

Facebook does not intend to block campaigns and advocacy organisations in Ireland from using service providers outside of the country. It will be working with political parties, groups from both the Yes and No campaigns, and the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI). These groups will be notifying Facebook about concerning ad campaigns, which the firm will then assess. Machine learning will also be used in this effort.

In April, Siliconrepublic.com spoke to transparency advocates, including TRI co-founder Liz Carolan. At the time, she said: “So much of the information sharing and spending is happening under a cloak of darkness; we don’t have a way of quantifying or fact-checking in many circumstances.” On that note, this news is a welcome step in the right direction for the platform.

Facebook is keen to maintain its neutrality in the referendum process. It stated: “We understand the sensitivity of this campaign and will be working hard to ensure neutrality at all stages. We are an open platform for people to express ideas and views on both sides of a debate. Our goal is simple: to help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects