Social media and democracy: Where do we go from here?

24 Apr 2018

Social media is having a major effect on democracy. Image: Nutthaseth Van/Shutterstock

How does social media need to change to ensure transparency in political campaigns?

There is no question that social media has provided numerous positives to society as it became a ubiquitous part of all of our lives – a sense of community in a Facebook group, a chance to make new friends on Twitter or the ability to access viewpoints you may have not considered, with a single click.

While these benefits are undeniable, so too are the negative effects and repercussions that can be traced back to social media platforms, particularly in recent years as the data economy has bloomed and the obstacle of online misinformation began to infect the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

Although the sentiment had been percolating in the background, the Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated the depth of the problems and unveiled the multitudes of ways people can be deceived and manipulated online, with potential democratic repercussions.

Long-overdue electoral reform and the need for online transparency have been developing issues for some time now, but the potential ramifications for democracy and public trust in related processes are now firmly in the spotlight.

Senior Facebook executive Joel Kaplan apologised to an Oireachtas committee earlier in April for the firm’s reaction to the scandal, and outlined developments it would be making to ensure users would feel more comfortable using the service. The company also announced one of its new transparency tools: the View Ads feature.

Affecting Irish voters

Given that the Irish electorate is due to make a decision regarding the potential repealing of the Eighth Amendment of the constitution in May – a highly sensitive issue – the topic of disinformation and access to the facts of the matter (on all online platforms, not just Facebook) are high on the agenda for many. How do we know who is purchasing adverts? What do we do when we are not equipped with this information or the means to access it?

Concerns have been raised about the spectre of online misinformation from a plethora of organisations and individuals, particularly as the reality of what can be done with our data sets in. spoke to several figures about where we should go from here.

Modernising existing laws

The issue of social media’s relationship with democracy is not new. Fíanna Fáil TD James Lawless tabled a bill in December 2017 that aimed to create a clearer picture of who is behind the political adverts we may be consuming. He said: “What is important is that there’s transparency around who is running a particular ad, particularly when it is sponsored or promoted.”

His bill aims to oblige political advertisers to display a transparency notice denoting who they are and who paid for the advert in question, among other things. Lawless is very concerned with what he views as “deliberate deception” carried out by bad actors in recent years and the effects of said deception on the democratic process.

For Lawless, the bill is about “bringing the existing electoral regulations into the online space” and he said that many others in Government are now waking up to the extent of the threat. “There’s a real sense of urgency now.”

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly also called for clarity in the digital sphere. “There needs to be transparency from all organisations, political or otherwise, in terms of their spend on social media advertising and their targeting on social media, particularly in relation to the upcoming referendum.”

More than just Facebook

Liz Carolan, founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI), explained some of her worries around the referendum campaign, as well as more general political processes conducted on social media.

“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,” she told While she noted the View Ads feature from Facebook as a welcome step, she still believes that far more needs to be done.

For Carolan, social media’s relative lack of accountability is a real worry and was a major catalyst for the establishment of TRI. “I think people behave differently when they know that their actions are public versus when they are allowed to behave anonymously.

“It’s [the upcoming referendum] a very sensitive topic and the kind of speech we are seeing happen anonymously would not be happening if the person behind them was known to the public.”

She also noted that while the privacy implications of the Cambridge Analytica revelations are of course important, there is something much larger at stake. “A lot of these conversations are centred around privacy but actually what’s going to have a bigger impact at a societal level, is that those millions of profiles were used to develop insights, technologies and tools for manipulative ways of influencing voters.

“It goes far beyond the people who were compromised.”

Start from scratch?

Both Carolan and transparency campaigner and Vizlegal co-founder Gavin Sheridan are glad to see politicians such as Lawless raising the issue, but feel that even more needs to be done than what the draft bill currently covers.

Carolan said: “I do think there might be an opportunity coming up for wholesale reform that also looks at political financing.” She views Ireland’s current provisions as somewhat lacking and particularly weak in terms of campaign finance and expenditure.

A more fundamental approach could be the answer. Sheridan summed it up: “What does the ideal system look like, and how would you design it?”

He thinks that Cambridge Analytica has been a good example of “building public awareness of the types of data out there, and also the types of techniques that can be used”.

A clear picture is hard to find

With a broad variety of online media and social media services consumed by the electorate, it is difficult – even with new provisions such as View Ads – to gain a clear view of what is happening in an online campaign.

Sheridan said: “It is hard to discern between the different platforms, to what extent they are being used and how much money is being spent on either side.”

The UK Electoral Commission may be a good template, in his view. Ireland currently has a mish-mash of bodies and pieces of legislation governing a variety of political regulation areas, from the referendum commission to the Electoral Acts. Sheridan is calling for a new system “built from the ground up”.

We are living in a world with data at its heart, and change may not be as swift as is truly needed. However, there are things individuals can do in their own lives. Carolan advised: “People who are up to speed on this, take on a responsibility to be informing your family and friends, asking them what they had been seeing.” She also urged users to flag anything concerning to TRI.

What’s crystal clear is that there is a huge amount of work ahead to do, with a lot at stake. “At the moment, it’s all things happening in the dark and noises in the wardrobe,” Carolan said.

Sheridan added: “We need to ask ourselves what system we want, with legislation based on today.”

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