The issue of dubious online campaigning, which for so long was flagged by observers in the run up to the abortion referendum, snapped into focus this week.
While legislators had plenty of time since 2016 to tackle the potential impact of online campaigning or online interference in our democratic process, the digital space remained unregulated as the referendum campaign kicked off.
This was never going to end well. Now Google has banned ads completely, and Facebook has banned ads from advertisers outside of Ireland.
The No campaign’s reaction - a joint press conference in front of a projection screen reading “RIGGED REFERENDUM?” - feels completely disproportionate. Why did they react this way? What were they up to online that was so crucial to them?
A good deal of the media reaction has focussed on the banning of ads, rather than why tech companies are taking these steps. Given that Facebook and Google did not take steps until this week, it can be surmised that they are concerned not just about campaign ads running in general, but the type of ads running: ones lacking transparency or purporting to be something they’re not - who was funding them, and whether those ads were being funded or run by entities outside of Ireland.
If the No campaign and its ancillary actors weren’t doing things online that lacked transparency we probably wouldn’t be in this situation.
Could Google and Facebook stand by and face another post-vote analysis of how their platforms facilitated voter manipulation? Taking action against all parties will go some way to cover themselves from such criticism.
The No campaign immediately sounded the alarm. Having spent months talking about their work on the ground, about how their movement was a grassroots one, and batting off the significance of hiring an ex-Cambridge Analytica executive, they suddenly, intensely, highlighted the importance of online to their campaigning, which was an admission of how focussed they were on reaching people, particularly undecided voters, through Facebook and Google’s ads in the final stages of the campaign.
The No campaign’s sensationalist press conference is also part of a strategy that remains focussed on heightened emotions, scaremongering, distraction tactics, and spreading fear and conspiracy.
Another reason why the No campaign went off the deep end on Wednesday is because the ad ban allowed them to seize a manufactured narrative about being silenced and victimised, and call into question the legitimacy of the referendum. This is a tactic straight out of the Trump playbook. It's the tactic that screamed "rigged" and "witch hunt" at his rallies.
This approach, one which seeks to constantly switch subjects in order to disorientate, put forward ridiculous statements, or stoke conspiracies, is as obvious as it can be frustrating to counter. The Save the 8th campaign, the Pro Life Campaign and the Iona Institute released a joint statement saying, "Online was the only platform available to the No campaign to speak to voters directly."
This is false. The No campaign papered the country in posters, used direct mail marketing to get leaflets through letterboxes, is using churches across the country as canvassing points, brags about its canvassing power, has equal time on television and radio programmes, and so on.
But it is a popular contemporary right-wing tactic for those who actually hold power or are aligned with the status quo to attempt to position themselves as marginalised or treated unfairly. A feature of the marriage equality referendum was for anti-equality campaigners to adopt a victim stance. The same thing is happening here.
Wednesday's communications drive by the No campaign was capped off with a car crash performance by Save the 8th spokesman John McGuirk on The Last Word on Today FM, where he was repeatedly taken to task by presenter Matt Cooper.
Here are questions the No campaign has not answered: Why run dark ads? Why was Protect the 8th, the referendum campaigning arm of Family & Life, in a self-described “war room session” with the Texan digital agency Fuzati?
Why won't Protect the 8th answer questions from the media? Why did the No campaign hire a Cambridge Analytica executive, and what has Thomas Borwick been working on during the campaign?
What does Facebook know?
Why build a website - Undecided8 - that purports to be impartial, when it isn’t? Why run ads that pretend to furnish voters with unbiased “facts” when they are clearly partisan? Has the No campaign captured datasets of undecided voters by luring them into a website purporting to be unbiased with the intent of re-targeting those voters? How many No ads were being run by advertisers outside Ireland?
In the last two years, we have seen how notoriously slow tech companies are to respond to criticism and public warnings about content being shared on their platforms. They tend to operate a hands-off policy. When contacted over the weekend about this very issue, a Facebook spokesperson said, “we cannot be the arbiters of truth and nor do we think people want us to assume an editorial role.”
Facebook would not disclose who was running the Undecided8 website ads. What does Facebook know? What does Google know? And shouldn’t we know it too? We also cannot let our politicians escape blame for this debacle. We cannot rely on Facebook and Google to self-police. It is up to our legislators to get on top of this issue and introduce legislation to regulate online campaigning. A general election can’t be too far away, which without legislation and regulation will create another headache.