Who made Facebook and Google referendum debate gatekeepers?
Social media giants not accountable to electorate but exert influence with ban
Incoherent, one-off bans in the middle of a campaign may have as malign an impact on the democratic process as does the manipulation of advertising itself.
Decisions by Google and Facebook to ban certain advertising related to the abortion referendum raise major questions about corporate policy and national sovereignty.
Is this public relations by a sector feeling the heat? Is it a chance for Google and Facebook to look good following accusations that social media and the internet generally have been manipulated around the world to undermine democracy? Is Ireland being used to make a point?
Or could companies such as Google and Facebook now ban political campaigns everywhere, in particular those bankrolled directly from abroad unless somehow “verified”?
This in turn raises the separate questions as to why should powerful multinationals have the power to muzzle speech, to decide what is fair or unfair during particular campaigns?
The ban may be well-intended, but you do not have to be a “vote no” campaigner to be concerned. No State body such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland had input into or oversight of this decision. What if Google and Facebook got it wrong?
Why should powerful multinationals have the power to muzzle speech, to decide what is fair or unfair during particular campaigns?
Bans on political advertising are not new. Ireland and Britain have long had a ban on political advertising on mainstream TV. The USA is different. There vast sums are spent on highly personalised and controversial political advertising, some of it by pressure groups on specific issues.
Ireland and the UK also have legal requirements for fairness and balance that no longer apply in the US – as they once did under the former “fairness doctrine” of the Federal Communications Commission there.
With powerful multinational companies such as Google and Facebook coming to dominate daily communications in practice, the idea that they can turn on and off content as they wish has major implications for society. Who made them the ultimate gatekeepers of political debate?
Such companies do have a corporate responsibility to ensure that they are not surreptitiously manipulated by Russians or by anyone else during elections and referendums. We now know this has happened. Demands are growing internationally for companies such as Facebook to ensure greater transparency and accountability as regards how information reaches its customers.
But Google’s and Facebook’s decisions to ban online ads relating to the Eighth Amendment came this week as it was claimed that the No side had been funded from abroad to outgun the Yes side online. Suddenly, claims that the Yes side had an unfair advantage due to financial support from abroad by George Soros and others were being stood on their head.
Were the online companies influenced by a liberal ideology? Would they have made the same decision if a surge in advertising had come from the Yes side? A notable feature of the celebratory parade in Dublin after the same-sex marriage referendum was the presence of vehicles bearing the brand of multinationals in Ireland. It is precisely because such questions arise that democracies need a way to ensure that fairness prevails on the internet as well as on the airwaves and in print.
A notable feature of the celebratory parade in Dublin after the same-sex marriage referendum was the presence of vehicles bearing the brand of multinationals in Ireland
You don’t have to have served on the Broadcasting Authority’s Compliance Committee, as I did, or on the Press Council to known that bias is often in the eye of the beholder, that people never complain of media being too fair to their side. Passions run high during referendum campaigns, and it is common for activists to convince themselves that there is really only one reasonable perspective.
But it cannot be left up to big internet or social media companies to decide who gets to say what. If certain political ads online are now to be banned in Ireland, then these companies must ban them in every country always. If it is a question of banning only ads paid for by foreigners, then these companies must demonstrate what it means to promise to “verify” the source of finance for their advertising.
And why stop there? The genie is out of the bottle. It is clear that our consumption of online media has exposed us to manipulation not just by political and ideological interests in other countries, but that advertisers too are manipulating us through surreptitious forms of targeting.
Citizens need democratically accountable safeguards. Incoherent, one-off bans in the middle of a campaign may have as malign an impact on the democratic process as does the manipulation of advertising itself.
Given that advertising matters, and to judge by posters on lamp-posts during general elections few politicians argue otherwise, what if this ban on advertising by Google and Facebook alters the outcome of the referendum? The answer to that question should not depend on which side you are on when it comes to the Eighth Amendment.