Unregulated referendum advertising continued despite efforts from tech firms

24 May 2018

People attending the March for Choice in Dublin, September 2017. Image: abd/Shutterstock

The Transparent Referendum Initiative details the lack of regulation ahead of Friday’s vote.

Ahead of the referendum on the potential repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI) has released its analysis of the use of online advertising during the campaign.

Co-founder of the TRI, Craig Dwyer, said the organisation set out to demonstrate “the complete lack of regulation for online advertising during political campaigns”. The findings by the TRI show a pressing need to reform Irish electoral laws, according to Dwyer.

More than a thousand Facebook ads

Since it launched on 14 February, the TRI has captured 1,300 Facebook ads from 280 unique advertisers – 405 of which were collected in the last week alone.

Approximately 600 Irish people contributed to the database and they likely represent just a fraction of all the ads purchased on Facebook during this period. Facebook has not shared any information on the extent of the advertising or amount of money spent, though it has introduced several initiatives to boost transparency in the lead-up to the vote.

The TRI also collected screenshots of political ads seen on platforms such as Google, YouTube and others. Groups had been paying for unregulated advertising on Google-owned platforms until the company withdrew the services on 9 May.

An ineffective strategy for the Irish referendum

According to the initiative, Google’s total ban on digital ads relating to the referendum was ineffective. “Unregulated ads have continued and been flagged to the initiative appearing on international news sites, on gaming apps, as video on streaming services, on Spotify, on an academic bibliography generating site.” The Guardian noted that it was unable to ensure referendum-related ads did not appear on its site.

Extensive data gathering on voters both through and for digital advertising is another concerning trend flagged by TRI. The voter roll has been accessed and recently, US-based canvassing apps had demonstrated weak privacy settings.

Democracy for sale?

“What we have seen is that, essentially, our democracy is up for sale to the highest bidder, and that bidder can remain anonymous and get around attempts at self-regulation,” continued Dwyer.

TRI partnered with the Geary Institute in University College Dublin to provide an analysis of the data it accrued throughout the campaign. After excluding the ads posted by neutral media organisations, it identified 1,281 Facebook ads advocating for a particular side of the debate.

  •  58pc of ads (749) are associated with Repeal and 42pc (532) are on the Retain side
  • When it comes to groups promoting these ads, there are 67pc (183) Repeal advertisers and 33pc (90) Retain
  • Only 38pc (105) of the advertisers are registered with SIPO (or associated with registered groups, such as local Together for Yes groups, or various Family and Life brands)
  • 62pc (172) of advertisers are unregistered or unaffiliated
  • Of the groups not registered or associated with SIPO, 79pc (135) are Irish, 9pc (16) are from advertisers based outside of Ireland and 12pc (21) are untraceable

“Prior to Facebook banning foreign ads, we were seeing organisations from America, Canada and Britain who were targeting Irish Facebook users to potentially influence their vote on May 25. Even after the ban, we continue to see ads from anonymous or untraceable pages where we’ve little to no information about who they are or who’s paying for the ads,” said Killian McLoughlin of the Geary Institute.

Liz Carolan, co-founder of TRI, said: “Even after the attempts at self-regulation by Google and Facebook, we’re still seeing money spent to target Irish voters online; in many cases, the location, identity and intent of advertisers remaining unknown.

“This shows that self-regulation does not work. What we need from these companies is transparency – full disclosure of who has paid them to influence this vote, and how much they have paid. It is then up to our Government to make sure that the rules governing finance in our elections cover digital spending,” added Carolan.

The TRI called for new legislation, including the reformation of Electoral Acts and the extension of restrictions that exist for offline campaigning to the digital sphere. The organisation will continue to monitor the presence of digital ads during the final days of the campaign.

People attending the March for Choice in Dublin, September 2017. Image: abd/Shutterstock

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