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'Dark ads' cast a shadow over Ireland's referendum on abortion

Attempts by Facebook and Google to tackle "dark ads" and foreign interference in the run-up to Ireland's referendum o...

Posted: May 20, 2018 6:12 PM
Updated: May 20, 2018 6:12 PM

Attempts by Facebook and Google to tackle "dark ads" and foreign interference in the run-up to Ireland's referendum on abortion haven't been entirely successful, data from a transparency group seen by CNN has shown.

The Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI), a volunteer organization set up to monitor social-media posts about the referendum has collected ads from 180 Facebook groups targeting Irish voters.

Facebook announced it would ban all ads from foreign groups on May 8, writing, "We understand the sensitivity of this campaign and will be working hard to ensure neutrality at all stages. We are an open platform for people to express ideas and views on both sides of a debate. Our goal is simple: to help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue."

But TRI data shows that out of around 200 new ads related to the vote since that announcement, at least 31% have been administered at least in part by page managers outside Ireland.

Google also announced it would not accept any political ads on any side of the campaign last week. "Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment," a statement read.

Yet screenshots sent to TRI from voters in Ireland after that announcement showed ads continuing to appear on Google's platform.

Irish law bans foreign citizens and groups from making donations to campaign groups and prohibits political ads on television or radio broadcasts during campaigns. The ad bans do not extend online or on social, meaning anyone is open to buying an ad on platforms like Facebook or Google.

Ireland's abortion laws -- some of the most restrictive in the developed world -- are enshrined in the eighth amendment to the country's constitution, which places an unborn child's right to life on equal footing with that of the mother. On May 25, Ireland will vote to repeal or retain the amendment.

A global campaign

Transparency campaigners and a group of journalists, including CNN, worked with TRI data to identify Facebook pages related to the referendum managed by people outside Ireland. The most common locations were the US and the UK.

Those locations were revealed last Friday after Facebook accidentally rolled out a live tool still in the testing phase called "Page History." It showed the location of a Facebook page's manager or managers and how many people were administering it.

Preliminary analysis of that data by social media intelligence and news agency Storyful found that 81% of pro-repeal ads were managed solely in Ireland, compared to 37% of anti-repeal posts.

Savethe8th, a national anti-abortion group, are a staunch No campaign group. Data showed group managers in locations in Hungary, the UK and two other countries, according to the data.

Savethe8th has not responded to CNN's request for comment.

Another page belonging to the White Flag Movement, with managers in the US and Ireland, has posted a video by American anti-abortion activist Dr. Anthony Levatino featuring graphic depictions of first-trimester abortions.

According to the TRI data, at least 40% of anti-repeal posts have come from pages that aren't registered with Ireland's ethics watchdog, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), compared to 17% of pro-repeal posts.

Under current Irish law, Facebook pages related to the referendum do not need to be registered with SIPO, however ones that are demonstrate they are in Ireland with campaigns financed by Irish funds.

Anonymous accounts with no contact information accounted for 13% of anti-repeal posts and 3% of pro-repeal posts.

In a statement on May 11, Facebook said the "early test" of the "Page History" feature was "mistakenly launched" to users in Ireland and Canada.

Facebook told CNN they would not be able provide further information on the location data seen in the Page History tool.

The "Page History" feature has since been deactivated.

Related: Ahead of US midterms, tech companies stumble in Irish abortion vote

When CNN showed Google an ad related to the referendum that had continued to appear on their platform this week, Google said they had taken action to remove them.

TRI co-founder Liz Carolan says Google's decision leaves many questions unanswered.

"I think that our institutions and voters should have access to the information that prompted this private company to take such a drastic step so close to polling day," she told CNN.

"What did they see that made them act so promptly to protect our "electoral integrity?"

'Anyone can spread any message'

The data captured while the Facebook tool was active has raised concerns about the spread of foreign influence and misinformation.

"We cannot as a sovereign nation allow tech giants to decide who gets to campaign on the Irish constitution and run the Irish government," James Lawless, Irish lawmaker and technology spokesman for the opposition Fianna Fail party, told CNN.

"Those decisions should be made on the Irish Cabinet."

Lawless first put forward his Social Media Transparency Bill in December 2017, with the aim to reduce the risk of foreign actors influencing upcoming campaigns.

Ireland's current campaign finance restrictions make sure that the richest campaigners don't dominate the campaign, Lawless explained. But if such regulations aren't imposed on social media, "all those rules go out the window, and anyone can spread any message that could change the Irish constitution."

The bill was rejected last year, but in the face of the work by TRI, public outcry and cross-party support, the government has now agreed to work with Lawless on bringing it forward.

Although he welcomes the government's support, Lawless says the "reactionary, 11th-hour move" would have been far preferable months before the campaign began.

And with loopholes in ads across Facebook and Google seen after their self-imposed bans, the social media sphere remains an open playing field. In Google's absence, a range of digital advertising platforms have stepped in to fill the void. This means that any foreign actors wishing to continue advertising on the referendum can still buy ads -- just not on Google.

"Democracy is not for sale to the highest bidder," said Lawless, who voted to hold the referendum and is undecided on the vote.

"If we don't take action now we are exposing ourselves to that risk."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated James Lawless' voting intentions.

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