Irish academics fill ‘gaping hole’ in election process with Fair Play Pledge

23 Jan 2020

Image: © Melinda Nagy/

Almost all parties contesting the 2020 general election have signed up to the Fair Play Pledge for online campaigns, which was proposed by Irish academics and election reform advocates.

All Irish parties and candidates contesting the 2020 general election have been asked by leading Irish academics and electoral experts to commit to a Fair Play Pledge for their digital campaigns.

The pledge makes the promise of respectful, transparent online campaigning and also commits candidates to reforming Ireland’s electoral process if elected.

‘Currently there are no rules for online political advertising and there’s this gaping hole here we’re trying to address’

The Fair Play Pledge is endorsed by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Transparency International Ireland and the Dublin City University (DCU) Institute for Future Media and Journalism, FuJo. It is supported by political scientists Dr Theresa Reidy (University College Cork) and Prof David Farrell (University College Dublin), FuJo director Dr Jane Suiter, and Dr Eileen Culloty, who leads research on countering disinformation as part of the Horizon 2020 project Provenance.

Illustration of two men in suits meeting with briefcases overspilling with money. One says: ‘Got the political ads?’ The other responds: ‘Got the money?’

Image: Harry Burton

At a press conference in Dublin today (23 January), Culloty expressed concern at the “deeper and lasting damage” caused by the current state of online campaigning, which appears to be normalising racist and sexist attacks, the manipulation of material, and the spread of false information.

“It’s in that context that this pledge is really important,” she said. “Currently there are no rules for online [political] advertising and there’s this gaping hole here we’re trying to address.”

What the Fair Play Pledge means

Transparency advocate Liz Carolan added that if the rules aren’t there, citizens aren’t protected. “We need to make sure that we don’t try and just patch some of these problems in the digital space, but instead we use this crisis as an opportunity to do the kind of fundamental reform that Ireland needs,” she said.

In the absence of any rules or governing body, the pledge asks for four commitments from general election candidates.

The first is that they campaign honestly and openly, without deploying tactics of deception, or spreading information known to be false. This includes the use of fake or misleading online profiles, and the manipulation of images and video to influence voters.

‘Ireland has been incredibly lucky so far. We’ve dodged a bullet. We know that cannot last much longer’

The pledge also commits to financial fair play and adherence to campaign finance rules on donations and spending limits online. “Political activity, when it happens online is not subject to the kind of rules that is offline,” explained Carolan.

The pledge also asks candidates not to resort to harassment or incitement to hatred and divisive campaigning, and to respect the dignity of others in their campaigns.

The final commitment asks that those elected commit to electoral reform in the new Dáil, working on a cross-party basis to establish an electoral commission.

Preparing for election reform

In calling for democratic processes that “keep up with modern times”, Farrell labelled the measures in place at the moment as “appalling”. Currently, Farrell said, our elections process is disorganised, spread across different bodies but chiefly under the remit of the Minister for Housing. “Surely the Minister for Housing has other things to think about,” he quipped.

Illustration of a man in a suit and tie chasing Twitter bird icons with a butterfly net.

Image: Harry Burton

The promise of an electoral commission has been made but not delivered by Government for some time. The Fair Play Pledge seeks to move this needle forward through those who sign up. At the time of writing, this includes Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Green Party, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit, UnitedPeople and independent candidate Catherine Connolly. Aontú has said it is currently reviewing the pledge and a decision is forthcoming.

The organisers of the pledge also plan to host a hackathon with journalists and technologists to examine what misuse looks like and explore solutions for trust and verification.

Vigilance in a vacuum

It was noted by the group that, in the absence of a real-time regulatory body, the burden is on citizens and the media to be vigilant and hold those committed to the pledge to account.

“Some candidates are engaging in sensational and outrageous behaviour. Journalists need to think very carefully about how they cover those stories, to avoid amplifying and rewarding that kind of behaviour with more coverage and thereby normalising it,” said Culloty.

Farrell recommended that the Department of the Taoiseach takes over the elections remit and that a capable commission is established to bring the Irish electoral process “into the 21st century” by addressing and keeping pace with the threats posed by online activity and social media.

“Ireland has been incredibly lucky so far. We’ve dodged a bullet. We know that cannot last much longer. If we want fair play in elections, then we need to work at it,” he added.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic