Powerful forces using internet to ‘wage war’, says Minister

Forum hears that Russia is trying to break up EU and spending millions on disinformation

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton  said the internet creates opportunities for others to ‘manipulate our thinking’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton said the internet creates opportunities for others to ‘manipulate our thinking’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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There are powerful forces that see the internet as presenting a new way of waging war, according to Minister for Communications Richard Bruton.

The explosion in social media use has enormous potential benefits for society and can strengthen democracy, but also has “destructive sides to it” which raise serious questions, he said.

Mr Bruton made the remarks on Thursday while addressing an open policy forum in Dublin Castle on the regulation of online political advertising.

Speaking on the threats from online posts, a representative of the European Commission’s communications directorate, former BBC journalist Joe Lynam, told the forum that Russia wanted to see the break-up of the EU as it would prefer to deal with nation states that had less power.

Citing stories in the past about the EU banning waitresses from displaying their cleavage or banning doner kebabs, he said the days of the EU not responding to lies were over.

He said a new unit set up by the commission was now monitoring for false narratives about the EU and responding with the facts.

He said that society has to fight to preserve the truth “because without it in 20 years’ time there may be no European Union.

“There may be no liberal democracy.

“The practitioners of disinformation have tens of millions of dollars in St Petersburg.”

For 40 years the EU did not respond to disinformation, and then Brexit happened and “suddenly we had people who were actively trying to collapse the European Union”, Mr Lynam said.

The forum was held to discuss proposed legislation to regulate online political advertising.

An interdepartmental group on the security of the State’s electoral process has decided there is a “high risk” to Irish democracy from people using the internet anonymously to “distort people’s opinions” by spreading disinformation.

Cyber attacks

Other risks identified by the group are the foreign funding of online advertising, online political advertising not being regulated, and cyber attacks on the political system.

Dr Alessio Cornia, of Dublin City University, told the forum a study of the US presidential election won by Donald Trump identified real concerns about the influence of online advertising that came from “suspicious groups”, many of whom are believed to have been Russian. This online advertising focused on divisive topics such as gun laws rather than having more direct political messages.

Something with “more teeth” than a voluntary code was needed to regulate online political advertising, Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform John Paul Phelan told the forum.

He said he would caution against any impulse to try to legislate against the causing of offence during political debate.

Gavin Sheridan, chief executive of legal information firm Vizlegal, said people should have the right to know who has placed and paid for advertising that appears on the internet. “It’s a very simple question. Who’s behind it? Who paid for it?”

There has been an enormous erosion of trust and it is now a question of when social media platforms will be regulated, he said. “It cannot be a voluntary process. It’s our democracy.”

Democracy

Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said the internet was being used to attack civil society organisations that are vital to democracy.

The Republic had an opportunity to stand up against what is happening in countries such as Hungary, Romania and Poland, by introducing effective regulation of online political advertising that would serve as an example for others, he said.

James Lawless, Fianna Fáil’s spokesman on science, technology, research and development, who introduced a Bill last year on transparency and online advertising, said it was “essentially about bringing the Electoral Act into the 21st-century”.

Dr Eoin O’Dell, associate professor of law in Trinity College Dublin, said society should be very careful about trying to regulate or constrain unpopular political opinions.

Representatives of Google and Facebook told the forum of measures introducted by their companies to increase transparency about the advertising appearing on their platforms.

The issues involved were complicated, said Niamh Sweeney, head of public policy with Facebook Ireland.

She said the company found itself in an uncomfortable space during the recent abortion referendum and would like greater legal clarity on the issue of online advertising.

“We accept that we have a greater responsibility to act and we are doing our best to do that,” she said.

Ryan Meade, public policy manager with Google Ireland, said the referendum had shown there was a gap between the law and what the electorate expected in terms of the integrity of the electoral process.

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