Officials urge Government to consider electoral commission

Transparency of online political advertising should be regulated, group says

Political parties should improve levels of cyber security, a group of senior officials who examined threats to Irish elections and referendums from disinformation said.

Political parties should improve levels of cyber security, a group of senior officials who examined threats to Irish elections and referendums from disinformation said.

 

The Government should consider the establishment of an electoral commission and regulate the transparency of online political advertising, a group of senior officials who examined threats to Irish elections and referendums from disinformation has recommended.

However, the group stops short of recommending immediate legislation and says the moves should first be considered by an “open policy forum” involving political parties, industry organisations, academia, civil society and NGOs.

The first report on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation was published by the Government on Tuesday evening, and comes following significant concerns during the recent abortion referendum about foreign and anonymous influence on the Irish electoral system through online campaigning.

However, the report finds that risks to the electoral process in Ireland are “relatively low”.

Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless, who has published a Bill to require transparency for political advertising online – which has been opposed by the Government – welcomed the report but said the Government “doesn’t seem to take into account the seriousness of the threat posed by external interference in our democratic process”.

A more substantial risk is posed by the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyber-attacks on the electoral system

“The Government needs to show some urgency in dealing with the threat posed by unregulated online political advertising. There is a growing body of evidence which shows there was substantial interference in the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. We need a fundamental overhaul of our electoral laws to ensure Ireland does not fall victim to a similar state-sponsored attack in the future,” he said.

Crisis

Liz Carolan, co-founder of the Transparency Referendum initiative, said it was disappointing that the actions proposed in the report fell short of what was needed to respond to an urgent crisis.

In May, two global companies took the unprecedented step of withdrawing or limiting their services in Ireland due to the lack of regulation of their product. “With more elections planned for the autumn, concrete proposals to enforce real-time transparency of online paid activity are needed, backed by legislation and overseen by an independent, empowered election commission,” she said.

The interdepartmental group of officials consisted of representatives from various government departments, the gardaí and the Defence Forces.

The report says that while overall the risks in Ireland are relatively low, “a more substantial risk is posed by the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyber-attacks on the electoral system”.

It says an important defence against misinformation is “media literacy” and Ireland has a comparatively high media literacy. It noted the Open Society Institute 2018 Media Literacy Index places Ireland sixth out of 35 European states for levels of media literacy.

The report also finds there is “a culture of journalism in Ireland with a tradition of high standards”.

“There is also a high degree of political neutrality relative to other countries,” the report finds. “This robust culture contributes to well-informed public debate which is a strong counterbalance to disinformation.”

The report also points out that Ireland is part of a number of EU initiatives being introduced, including “an EU-wide code of practice on disinformation, support of an independent network of fact-checkers, media literacy initiatives and tools to promote quality journalism”.

It also recommends that the Government consider spending limits for referendums and increase the transparency of donations and spending on advertising. It also says political parties should improve levels of cyber security, drawing on advice from the Government’s National Cyber Security Centre.