New election laws to include crackdown on political ads on social media

Rules will allow for social distancing and queuing at polling stations during pandemic

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien: Bill will be ‘the most significant development of our electoral system in decades’.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien: Bill will be ‘the most significant development of our electoral system in decades’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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The State will be able to hold a general election during the Covid-19 pandemic under new provisions published on Friday, which will also mean a crackdown on political advertising on social media platforms.

The Department of Housing published new regulations on Friday allowing for polling to take place over more than one day, in order to allow for social distancing and queuing at polling stations.

It will also allow for postal votes to be given to those on the special voters’ list if nursing homes and hospitals are inaccessible during an election, the department said. The Electoral Reform Bill also provides for increasing the size of the Dáil from 160 seats to between 166 and 172 seats.

After a series of controversies around the role of social media and overseas influence in elections, the heads of the Bill published on Friday also envisage significant new obligations on social media platforms running political ads during elections.

Under the new laws, online political adverts will have to be clearly labelled and accompanied by a transparency notice detailing information about the advertising, including who placed it, whether micro-targeting was used, and the amount paid for it.

Documentation

Social media companies and other online platforms will have to appoint a “responsible person” to verify the information being presented by those buying ads, with platforms not allowed to accept advertising from those who do not provide the required documentation.

The companies will also have to take measures to verify the identity of the buyer of advertisements, and the purchase of ads by entities outside Ireland will be severely curtailed. Buyers of ads from outside the State must be citizens, or, if they are companies, have an office in the State, while the onus will be on online companies to identify whether someone from outside the Republic is purchasing an ad.

Online platforms will also be obliged to create a digital archive of the political advertisements and their transparency notices.

Campaigners welcomed the new rules. Liz Carolan, founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative, said the department had “done their homework” with a “clear set of obligations for notices on political ads that goes a few steps beyond what platforms are currently doing”.

She said, however, that more work needed to be done to allow the scrutiny of ads in real time, and to cover an evolving landscape which may require additional powers for regulators “as technology and campaigning evolves”. She also questioned the basis for only restricting political ads during election periods.

Penalties

Failure to comply with the provisions of the Act can lead to penalties of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to €5,000, or both.

The rules on online advertising – which will apply during election periods only – will be regulated by a new electoral commission, also established by the Act. This will register political parties and take on responsibilty for work done by referendum commissions, constituency commissions and local electoral boundary commissions. The new commission will be made up of public officials experienced in electoral functions and appointed via a public process, the department said.

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said the Bill will be “the most significant development of our electoral system in decades”.

The Bill will also introduce updates to the electoral register, including online registration, a rolling, continuously updated register and the introduction of provisional registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, who would then become active at the age of 18.