Social media ads must not be used to subvert abortion referendum

New volunteer-led initiative to scrutinise political advertising in online sphere

Irish users of social media platforms are already being targeted with ads online. Some ads are clearly attributed to registered campaigns, but many are devoid of information about who is behind them. Photograph: PA

Irish users of social media platforms are already being targeted with ads online. Some ads are clearly attributed to registered campaigns, but many are devoid of information about who is behind them. Photograph: PA

 

Ads on social media are an effective way for companies to find customers. Platforms know each user’s age, location, gender, interests, family status and friendship networks, and let advertisers target tailored ads based on this information.

This is great for a baker who wants to market wedding cakes to newly engaged couples in her part of the country. But when this technology is used in political advertising, it quickly becomes problematic.

While commercial advertising involves generating customers, political advertising involves spending money with the intent of influencing the outcome of elections and referendums. The potential consequences of political ads are serious, so we treat them differently, banning them from TV and radio ads in Ireland for example.

Crucially, we should have different expectations of transparency regarding these two type of ads. Democratic processes require openness in order to work. Information needs to be open to scrutiny, to being discussed and debated in our media and our homes.

Misleading information

If voters are being shown misleading information, it needs to be called out. If money is being spent to influence voters, we need to know the intent, location and identity of the people providing the financing.

Designed to appeal to marketing managers, social media ad technology has secrecy built in. Ads are only shown to select groups of people and can be hidden from everyone else. Basic information about who is paying is provided only at their own discretion. Full details on who has been targeted and why is considered confidential and no-one checks if ads are being paid for by actors outside the country.

Technology companies currently treat paid for political content no differently and Ireland has no rules compelling them to do so. Our other transparency measures are weak too, and don’t help. Campaigns are not obliged to publicly share details of their expenditure. Self-funded campaigns – those not accepting donations – do not have to register, meaning no official list of campaign groups exists.

What is more, no regulations prevent someone outside the country using social media to target and influence Irish voters.

The FBI found that Russian actors used targeted ads to get misleading content into the feeds of millions of American voters ahead of the 2016 election

Combined, these conditions have created an environment where opportunities are abundant to invisibly spend large amounts of money to influence results, to anonymously spread manipulative or misleading information under the radar, and to influence voters from outside of the country.

Thoughtful approach

In Ireland we are unusual in the extent to which we use referendums. Voters are used to weighing up the arguments and in my experience take a thoughtful approach considering evidence before going to the ballot box. I believe that we are less susceptible to online ads than other electorates, but there is no room for complacency.

These ads can be very powerful. The pro-Brexit campaign spent £3.7 million on online ads with just one company targeting key voters repeatedly in the run up to that referendum. The FBI found that Russian actors used targeted ads to get misleading content into the feeds of millions of American voters ahead of the 2016 election.

Irish users of social media platforms are already being targeted with ads online. Some ads are clearly attributed to registered campaigns, but many are devoid of information about who is behind them.

In light of this, the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI) has been launched as a volunteer-led effort to increase the transparency of online, political advertising. We are building a public database of ads targeting Irish voters during the upcoming referendum. This database is openly available for fact checkers, journalists and any member of the public who wants understanding what is happening in the campaign.

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the State to set the rules for our elections. Some steps can be taken now

We have engaged with the technology platforms asking for their collaboration. Twitter have told us they will not be accepting ads for this referendum, as the subject matter violates their internal policies. Facebook are developing transparency tools for the US mid-term elections, however, they have no immediate plans to make these available in Ireland.

Crowdsourcing tools

So TRI will enlist the help of Irish voters to gather all political ads that will appear in their feeds in the coming months using crowdsourcing tools available on our website . We hope that this will encourage the technology companies to take action to ensure that users in this country know who is paying to reach them.

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the State to set the rules for our elections. Some steps can be taken now, for example ensuring the soon to be established Referendum Commission takes a more active role in pushing back on misinformation online.

However, the use and misuse of technology has exposed existing gaps in our regulations that we can no longer ignore. We hope the TRI database will provide a useful evidence base for long-term reform, and that in the short-term it will make the referendum less vulnerable to improper influence.

Liz Carolan is a senior associate at the Open Data Institute and adviser to the Open Data Charter. She is co-founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative www.tref.ie

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