Committee calls for moratorium on targeted social media political ads

Individual states urged to put a temporary ban on micro-targeted political advertising

An international “grand committee” of parliamentarians investigating fake news has called on a moratorium on micro-targeted political advertising on social media that contains false information.

The committee of politicians drawn from all over the world agreed after a day-long hearing in Dublin that individual states should put a temporary ban on targeted political advertising until such time as there is proper regulation in place.

The declaration by the grand committee, which is investigating fake news and disinformation, came after a day-long hearing in Seanad Éireann which heard evidence from tech giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter, and from experts, campaigners, academics, and regulators.

Facebook faced most criticism from the politicians for its refusal to ban political advertising and follow the example of Twitter, which announced a ban last week.


Social media companies facilitate companies and political actors using personal data gathered on individuals to target very specific groups during election campaigns. In some instance, the ads contain false information. The issue of fake news and false claims first came to major public prominence after the 2016 US presidential election.

‘Truth police’

The hearings were chaired by Fine Gael chair of the communications committee, Hildegarde Naughton, along with her her colleagues, Eamon Ryan of the Green Party, and James Lawless of Fianna Fáil.

Earlier, a senior Facebook executive told the committee the company should not be the “truth police for the entire world”.

The firm’s head of global policy, Monika Bickert, defended its decision not to ban political advertising.

Outlining Facebook’s policies, Ms Bickert said the company now requires verification of identify for political advertising in some countries.

She said that since August this year, political advertisements are now subject to third-party fact checking. However, those checks do not apply to direct speech or opinion from politicians.

Defending that policy decision, she said: “In mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinised speech there is.

“We therefore don’t believe that a private company should be determining for the world what is true or false in a politician’s statement.”

The claim was disputed by grand committee members.

US congressman David Cicilline said that micro-targeting of Facebook users helped political players avoid public scrutiny for false claims.

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon, in a separate session, said her office is conducting a number of investigations into the micro-targeting of individuals on large social media platforms.

Ms Dixon said the use of personal data raised issues of compliance with new General Data Protection Regulation rules. Her office is responsible for regulating personal data responsibilities of a large number of tech giants with European bases in Ireland.

Legally compelled

She told the grand committee that current investigations were open into the use of platforms, data brokers (companies who scrape on-line databases for personal information and then sell it on), and ad exchanges (where inventories of date are sold).

An investigative journalist also asserted that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should be legally compelled to appear before the committee to answer questions about disinformation, fake news and micro-targeted political advertising.

Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr said Mr Zuckerberg had show contempt by refusing to appear before the committee.

Ms Cadwalladr first disclosed Cambridge Analytica’s secret harvesting of Facebook user data to target voters in the US presidential elections in 2016.

“The contempt (Mark Zuckerberg) has shown to national representatives here is extraordinary,” Ms Cadwalladr told grand committee members drawn from nine countries.

“A single company (Facebook) has played a critical role in elections in so many countries but is not answerable. Mark Zuckerberg needs to be subpoenaed by the committee. He needs to be asked proper, considered and informed questions.”

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times