Eamon Ryan, TD, notes how Facebook’s approach to advertising ahead of the Irish abortion referendum opens the door for the European Parliament to discuss effective regulation.
This week, Mark Zuckerberg will land in Brussels to visit the one legislature that seems to have some ability to regulate what Facebook is doing.
The heads of the political group attending the session should start by reviewing how we could stop any nefarious interests using these platforms to influence our democratic process. They should look for an immediate commitment that online advertising spending in future elections and referendums is monitored and reported, so we can ensure real fairness in every result.
As it happens, the European Parliamentarians have a live working example before them, which they can use as a test case for what needs to be done. This Friday (25 May), the Irish people will go to the polls to decide a most contentious referendum question, on whether we provide freedom of choice in the termination of pregnancies within our jurisdiction.
‘What we want is real transparency to ensure neither false messaging or foreign cash can unduly pervert our democratic process’
On 8 May last, at the most sensitive time in this heated and divisive debate, Facebook announced that it would no longer be permitting referendum adverts funded from outside the State. The following day, Google went one step further and blocked any advertising on the issue, regardless of where the funding came from. Twitter had taken a similar approach from the start.
Facebook said it was taking the action as part of its efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums, and that the spirit of its approach was consistent with Irish electoral law. It was in a difficult position because the relevant law had been written back in 1992 and had no provision for digital advertising, no matter what the colour of money used to pay for it.
Its motivation must have come from the fact that it did not want a repeat of the controversy surrounding its role in the election of Donald Trump and in the Brexit result. As our debate heated up and the polls started to narrow, the company understandably did not want to end up holding the baby. Why face further public anger at home and abroad, should a controversial Irish referendum result arrive?
Because people could see that this referendum was going to be so contentious and ‘dark ads’ and foreign funding had the potential to influence the result, an Irish NGO, Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI), was established to try and monitor what was happening online.
TRI has tracked 888 different adverts in relation to the campaign and classified each advert by the nature of the content and the source of funding. However, it has so far been unable to tell the volume of money put behind each ad. Having such data would reassure people that the reason Facebook made its last-minute decision was from general ethical concerns, rather than any fear a massive spike in spending was about to sway the result one way or the other.
The Irish Government has now agreed to update our law to improve transparency in future election campaigns. Facebook and Google need to sit down with our political system and with Transparent Referendum Initiative to research the best approach to this new legislation. It will not be easy to get it right and we have to be careful when calls for urgency come at the same time as we are dealing with issues involving such complexity.
It is not that we want to stop all online activity. The latest monitoring shows a lot of the recent advertising was designed to mobilise people to get involved in local campaigning, which is to be encouraged. But what we do want is real transparency to ensure neither false messaging or foreign cash can unduly pervert our democratic process.
By changing the advertising rules here at the last minute, Facebook recognised that the unregulated status quo is no longer tenable. The European Parliament should use this open door to now set some basic standards around election advertising for all of Europe.
The test of whether it is serious or not will be whether we can have all the spending data from our current referendum campaign. Zuckerberg needs to commit to that this week.
We are in a new digital world order, nothing less will do.
By Eamon Ryan, TD
Eamon Ryan is TD for Dublin Bay South and sits on the Oireachtas Communications, Climate Action and the Environment Committee and the Budgetary Oversight Committee. He is currently leader of the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas.