Prof Louise Kenny on how the Repeal battle was fought online

11 Jul 2018

Prof Louise Kenny speaking at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Prof Louise Kenny took to the Inspirefest stage to talk about online misinformation, bodily autonomy and how the fight for ‘Yes’ was won.

25 May 2018 was not only a victory for reproductive rights in Ireland, but a triumph for facts in the face of misleading narratives.

As a professor of obstetrics and a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Prof Louise Kenny was a vocal supporter of the Repeal campaign in Ireland’s recent debate over the controversial Eight Amendment, along with many other medical, scientific and legal experts. As she gave a special address to the Inspirefest 2018 audience, the themes of truth and compassion continued to surface.

History was made

Kenny emphasised the unprecedented nature of the campaign and its victory. “A woman-led grassroots movement that was essentially crowdfunded with minimal financial support took on the combined forces of the Catholic Church, the alt-right, and won.” The power of this win was not lost on the audience.

“I suspect books will be written on the lessons we learned during the Yes campaign and its triumph,” Kenny predicted. She spoke of the nerves she felt a month previous and the “agonising 12 hours” she and campaigners across Ireland had to wait before the exit polls were reported.

Four weeks after the result, Kenny noted that while doubts had weighed heavy on her mind beforehand, it now seemed “odd to think that there was ever any doubt about it at all”.

Battling digital misinformation

The influx of anti-choice misinformation, both national and international, analogue and digital, sowed seeds of uncertainty in the minds of many. For a lot of the anti-choice lobby, the Irish vote was “the frontline of a wider battleground” in a country “viewed by many of these groups as the last bastion of restricted abortion”.

Digital interference was a major talking point during the course of the referendum campaign, particularly in the “post-Brexit, Trump era”. Concerns were proven to be valid.

The Transparent Referendum Initiative found that Irish internet users were being served microtargeted ads, while volunteers at the Repeal Shield Twitter account blocked 16,000 accounts spreading false narratives about abortion – more than 70pc of blocked accounts originated in the US.

However, the opposing campaign to encourage voters towards a Yes vote was ultimately successful, said Kenny, due to personal stories like those of Michelle Harte (a former patient of hers) and, of course, Savita Halappanavar.

These women were “etched on our collective consciousness” and, crucially, “their stories were believed”. Social media stories from parents who described their experience with fatal foetal abnormality, as well as anonymous abortion stories on the In Her Shoes Facebook page, struck a chord with the public.

Expert voices also made a massive difference, propping up the personal experiences with scientific and legal facts. Kenny noted that while the No side offered “a tiny number of retired doctors”, a massive contingent of obstetricians and gynaecologists supported a Yes vote.

Not over yet

Concluding her talk, Kenny referenced her own parents, part of the generation that voted for the Eighth Amendment in 1983 and gave their “emphatic Yes” in May. “In a world of fake facts, they give us hope.”

It’s not over yet, though. “We have the chance to provide safe, compassionate, holistic healthcare,” Kenny exclaimed, before making a pledge to bring access to the same care to the entire island of Ireland: “The North is next.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

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