wednesday, 9 may of 2018

Facebook curbs foreign adverts for Irish abortion vote

Facebook has moved to ban foreign adverts on Ireland’s abortion referendum in response to concern that campaigners outside the country have been using the social media platform to try to sway the vote this month.

After controversy over the use of Facebook in the US presidential election and Britain’s Brexit referendum, the tech group on Tuesday acknowledged that concerns had been raised about “organisations and individuals based outside of Ireland” trying to influence the referendum on May 25.

“Today, as part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland,” Facebook said.

Leo Varadkar, the prime minister, is campaigning in the referendum to remove Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. A 35-year-old amendment to the country’s basic law upholds the equal right to life of the mother and unborn child.

The question is highly contentious, with a weekend poll for the Sunday Independent showing 45 per cent for repeal, 34 per cent against and 18 per cent undecided.

But the campaign has also raised fresh concern about the use of unregulated social media adverts to circumvent strict national rules on political funding, balance in broadcasting and funding for electoral campaigns.

Facebook did not respond to the question of whether the Irish move would set a precedent for other electoral contests in other jurisdictions. It said it was building tools to increase transparency in political advertising “so that people know who is paying for the ads they are seeing, and to ensure any organisation running a political ad is located in that country”.

This will include a verification process requiring advertisers to be resident in the country holding an election, Facebook added.

“What we are now doing for the referendum on the eighth amendment will allow us to operate as though these tools, which are not yet fully available, were in place today with respect to foreign referendum-related advertising,” Facebook said. “We feel the spirit of this approach is also consistent with the Irish electoral law that prohibits campaigns from accepting foreign donations.”

Social media adverts are unregulated in Ireland, prompting critics to say that groups such as Facebook, Google and YouTube can run unlimited content that could not be published by domestic media.

The move by Facebook was welcomed by Ireland’s press ombudsman, Peter Feeney, who said adverts on social media were “subject to nobody”.

“I think it is an acknowledgment by Facebook that they have a responsibility for their role in the public discourse,” Mr Feeney told RTE, the national broadcaster.

Too much content on social media platforms “has been offshore, it has been quite murky. We don’t know who’s paying for it, we don’t know who is sponsoring it,” Mr Feeney said.

Liz Carolan, a campaigner for transparency over paid online advertising in elections, said volunteer contributors to a website tracking referendum content online had reported about 620 ads targeting Irish voters.

“A lot of them are coming from untraceable sources. We’ve no idea whose money has paid for the ad. There’s nobody who can be held responsible when we have information that’s either untrue, or images that are disturbing or messages that are manipulative in some way,” she said.

James Lawless, an opposition MP, said the questions over online political adverts were equally important for Google, YouTube and Twitter.

“The crux of the issue is to know who is running which ad. The key to it is knowing who is the publisher is,” Mr Lawless said.

(Published by Financial Times, May 08, 2018)

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