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10 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

Can Ireland escape the influence of dark online advertising on its abortion referendum?

Google and Facebook will ban all foreign adverts targeting the vote, but we should be wary of patting Silicon Valley too hard on the back. 

By Mary Fitzgerald

The mood music sounds a bit better this time – at least for now. Both Google and Facebook have this week vowed to ban ads from “foreign actors” trying to influence Ireland’s upcoming abortion referendum, after journalists and campaigners exposed how foreign and alt-right groups are funnelling unregulated cash into the campaign, and exploiting loopholes to target Irish citizens via social media

Ireland currently has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, denying women and girls access to terminations even in cases of rape or incest. Over the years there have been horrifying cases including the slow, painful death of a woman refused a termination in hospital even though she was miscarrying. But Ireland’s pro-life lobby has successfully vanquished almost all attempts at reform.

The referendum on 25 May would change this: if the “repeal” motion passes, the government will be able to legislate on this issue, and proposes permitting abortion up to 12 weeks, or in cases where there is a risk to the life of the woman, a medical emergency or a fatal foetal abnormality. This would bring Ireland in line with some of Europe’s least permissive countries.

The polls show the pro-choice vote slightly ahead, but it is nail-bitingly close, and the referendum has become a cause celebre for lobby groups across the world. There has long been speculation that Irish pro-life groups have been generously funded by US sources: the American anti-abortion lobby has deep pockets and a long history of resourcing fights against women’s reproductive rights across the world. (See this undercover report from inside the global “pro-family” movement released by 50.50, openDemocracy’s gender, sexualiy and social justice section, last year.)

What’s new, however, is that a number of the anti-abortion groups operating in Ireland are now deploying the same technologies, companies, and even individuals involved in the controversial data mining and targeting used in the Trump and Brexit campaigns. This includes working with senior pro-Leave figures, a consultant linked to Cambridge Analytica – and a company that built Trump’s America First app and previously worked for the US National Rifle Association.

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For the last 18 months, openDemocracy has been investigating the dark money that funded the Brexit campaign, and the groups that are now seeking to influence political processes in Britain and across the world. We aren’t doing this because we have a pro or anti-Brexit agenda, or any other political goals or allegiances, but because we believe it’s vital that citizens everywhere know who is shaping what they see and hear, and who has access to key information about their lives. Without this fundamental baseline of transparency, power is not accountable and elections and referenda – particularly tightly-fought contests – can be bought, or “managed”.

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Speaking in reaction to our findings so far in Ireland, global data protection expert Paul-Olivier Dehaye told openDemocracy 50.50 that “voters have no idea of the precision of the targeting that goes into this.” Although Irish law bans foreign donations to political campaigns, until now overseas campaigners have been able to spend potentially unlimited sums buying online adverts targeting Irish voters.

In light of this, the moves announced by Google and Facebook this week to ban all foreign adverts aimed at Ireland’s referendum are a step in the right direction. But we should be wary of patting Silicon Valley too hard on the back. The regulation of the democratic process should not be outsourced to tech companies, whose primary concern is boosting share prices and avoiding negative headlines. Legislators need to act – fast.

As in Britain, Irish election law is barely two decades old, but it comes from an era before social media and data-driven campaigning. While parties need to account for every poster printed and leaflet delivered, there is no such stricture on digital advertising. It also remains to be seen whether Google and Facebook’s new measures are at all workable – not least how they will be monitored and enforced. As the Brexit experience has shown, many such groups are practiced at channelling money and resources through third parties in order to circumvent disclosure laws and other restrictions.

Ireland, says Gavin Sheridan of the Irish transparency campaign group Right to Know, badly needs a “broad ranging electoral law reform to bring us up to date with how campaigns are run in the 21st century.” There is political momentum gathering steam for this. But it won’t come quickly enough for this vital decision. In this close-fought battle over a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body, there are only two weeks left. openDemocracy is working around the clock to bring more information to light. We will be breaking more stories about how information is being targeted and manipulated – and who’s paying for it. Our findings so far have raised a string of vital questions for modern democracies everywhere. There’s more to come – watch this space.

Mary Fitzgerald is editor in chief of openDemocracy. Find out more about openDemocracy 50.50’s investigative series, Tracking the Backlash,  here.