The effectiveness of the ban by Facebook on foreign advertisement during the abortion referendum in Ireland has come into question after an inquiry into possible ‘fake news’ in the referendum was ordered by British and Irish parliamentarians.
The inquiry was ordered after findings that in the run up to polling day, it was still possible for campaigners residing outside of Ireland to pay for social media ads that were targeted at Irish accounts. Most of the adds had anti-abortion messages.
In an announcement earlier in the month, Facebook had said that it would not allow any advertisements related to the abortion referendum to be run on the platform from anywhere except from within Ireland. this was because of growing concerns about foreign influence on local elections and ballots.
The Facebook ban was found to be faulty after journalists at news website openDemocracy managed to purchase ads that had referendum related materials targeted at Irish accounts from the UK even after the ban was put into force.
In this revelation, Facebook promoted a fake page called “Save Irish Babies” – set up in London, to get likes. A non-Irish address and bank card was successfully used by the reporters to pay for targeted ads of Irish accounts in Dublin, Sligo and Wicklow.
The “investigation demonstrates that the changes that Facebook has made regarding political and issues based adverts on its platform are not fit for purpose”, said Damian Collins MP, Conservative Party chair the Westminster committee that is conducting the investigation into the alleged fake news.
“Buzzwords like AI and machine learning are all well and good, but it is clear that foreign individuals and organisations are still easily able to post adverts, demonstrating that a lot more needs to be done to protect the integrity of referendums and elections around the world,” Collins said.
There was a “massive concern” in relation to the effectiveness of the ban proclaimed by Facebook on foreign advertising, said Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless. The government was accused by him of “dithering” over the introduction of legislation covering online advertising and social media.
“The moves by Facebook (to block ads) came so late in the day that even if the platforms had a genuine intent to tackle the problem the processes were not in place,” Lawless said.
“The referendum in Ireland has shown the need for legislation to prevent the underhanded tactics we have seen on occasion during the campaigns in recent weeks, the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK, the presidential elections in the US and other less known elections across the globe.
“In the next number of months we will have Presidential elections, local and European elections, and possibly a general election all susceptible to interference by anonymous outside forces online. Our laws related to electioneering must be updated to reflect the new spaces in which people campaign.”
The necessary regulation to promote transparency would be brought about by a private member’s bill that he had brought forward.
“The Government has signalled its intention in accepting this Bill, but they have been far too slow to act on this to date. They have dithered and in the meantime our democratic process has suffered.”
(Adapted from IrishTmes.com)