Social media Bill could have ‘unintended consequences’ for democracy

Bill criminalising use of automated social media accounts to manipulate debates rejected

The Government has rejected a  Bill that would make it a crime to use automated social media accounts or “bots” to manipulate online political debates. File photograph: Getty Images

The Government has rejected a Bill that would make it a crime to use automated social media accounts or “bots” to manipulate online political debates. File photograph: Getty Images

 

The Government has rejected a Fianna Fáil Bill that would make it a crime to use automated social media accounts or “bots” to manipulate online political debates and influence campaigns.

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten said the Bill would have unintended consequences for the democratic process itself that could make things worse.

The Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill introduced by Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless highlights attempts to influence the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum vote.

It also targets the Government’s €5 million Strategic Communications Unit which the Opposition has dubbed the “spin” unit.

Opposition TDs are up in arms about advertising involving Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Government Ministers and claim they are using State money to promote Fine Gael.

Mr Naughten made no reference to the communications unit but Fianna Fáil TD Thomas Byrne noted the Minister “is not getting a slice of the advertising pie because you are not in Fine Gael. The broad shoulders of Fine Gael have elbowed into all these paid ads.”

400,000 viewers

He noted the latest advert highlighting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe in his Dublin Central constituency “had 400,000 viewers and was paid for entirely by all the taxpayers of Ireland. This is wrong and should be illegal.”

Mr Naughten acknowledged the thrust of the Bill was aimed at reducing the risk of external actors seeking to create false political campaigns, but it would likely “make the situation worse rather than better”.

He said the definition of a “political end” is so broad that the Bill essentially prohibits the spending of public money of any kind on advertising online of any matter dealt with or funded by the State.

He said online advertisers and social media companies would have responsibility for deciding what was or was not political advertising.

“The Bill provides the Minister, currently me, with significant powers regarding the standards to be set. These could be implemented without recourse to anyone else with the simple stroke of a pen on the cusp of an election. That is a significant power to place in the hands of any one individual.”

He said the Bill was “was weak in ignoring the rightful role that should be played by the Standards in Public Office Commission”.

Major public concern

Mr Lawless said there had been major public concern about the communications unit and said it appeared from the advertising that “it is a uniquely good news service. Bad news does not seem to make the cut.”

He said the “good news engine seems to power on with €5 million in public money. There is a provision in this Bill that would prohibit the use of public money for political purposes, using the definition of political purposes contained within the Bill.”

He also noted reported concerns of the secretary-general of the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, about the unit, who warned officials within it to maintain the independence and political impartiality of the Civil Service.