Facebook under fire over ‘failure’ to police referendum ads

Chair of UK fake news inquiry says foreign campaigners ‘still easily able’ to post adverts

Facebook Ireland said it has ‘rejected and removed many ads which were in violation of our foreign ads policy’. Photograph: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Files

Facebook Ireland said it has ‘rejected and removed many ads which were in violation of our foreign ads policy’. Photograph: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Files


British and Irish parliamentarians, including the chair of an influential Westminster inquiry into “fake news”, have raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of Facebook’s ban on foreign advertising during Ireland’s abortion referendum.

This follows the discovery that that campaigners outside Ireland could still pay for social media ads targeting Irish accounts with anti-abortion messages in the run up to polling day.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it would block ads relating to Friday’s referendum that did not originate from advertisers inside Ireland. The move followed growing fears over the influence of foreign influence on domestic elections and ballots.

Journalists at news website openDemocracy were able to buys ads targeting Irish accounts with referendum-related propaganda from the UK after the ban came in.

From London, a fake page called “Save Irish Babies” was set up, which was prompted by Facebook to boost its posts to attract likes. Reporters successfully paid to target Irish accounts in Dublin, Sligo and Wicklow, using a non-Irish address and bank card.

Damian Collins MP, Conservative Party chair of a high profile Westminster committee that is holding an inquiry into fake news, said the “investigation demonstrates that the changes that Facebook has made regarding political and issues based adverts on its platform are not fit for purpose”.

“Buzzwords like AI and machine learning are all well and good, but it is clear that foreign individuals and organisations are still easily able to post adverts, demonstrating that a lot more needs to be done to protect the integrity of referendums and elections around the world,” Mr Collins said.

Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless said there was a “massive concern” about the effectiveness of Facebook’s proclaimed ban on foreign advertising. He accused the Government of “dithering” over the introduction of legislation covering online advertising and social media.

“The moves by Facebook (to block ads) came so late in the day that even if the platforms had a genuine intent to tackle the problem the processes were not in place,” Mr Lawless said.

“The referendum in Ireland has shown the need for legislation to prevent the underhanded tactics we have seen on occasion during the campaigns in recent weeks, the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK, the presidential elections in the US and other less known elections across the globe.

“In the next number of months we will have Presidential elections, local and European elections, and possibly a general election all susceptible to interference by anonymous outside forces online. Our laws related to electioneering must be updated to reflect the new spaces in which people campaign.”

He said he had brought forward a private member’s bill which would bring about the necessary regulation to promote transparency.

“The Government has signalled its intention in accepting this Bill, but they have been far too slow to act on this to date. They have dithered and in the meantime our democratic process has suffered.”

Gavin Sheridan of Irish transparency campaign Right to Know echoed the call for Government regulation of online political campaigning.

“We can no longer allow companies to set the terms and self regulate how ads are seen in the context of elections and referenda. It is not up to Facebook, Google or any other company to choose what information to release or not release about what is going on.

“We need new, modern legislation to address how campaigns are run in the modern era. Self-regulation will simply not work,” he said.

Facebook defended the effectiveness of its ban on foreign referendum adverts in Ireland.

A spokesperson for Facebook Ireland said: “Since introducing the policy, we have rejected and removed many ads which were in violation of our foreign ads policy. We use both machine learning and human review to identify ads that should no longer be running.”

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