Facebook panicked about foreign influence in the Irish abortion referendum — and revealed a worrying truth

Ireland abortion referendum campaigners.

caption
Ireland abortion referendum campaigners.
source
Reuters

  • Facebook’s new transparency tools to prevent meddling in political advertising endured their biggest test yet during Ireland’s abortion referendum.
  • US and Canadian anti-abortion campaigners bought Facebook ads in an attempt to swing the Irish vote in their favour.
  • Facebook decided to block ads from “foreign entities” on earlier this month.
  • Experts on the ground said the ban showed Facebook’s new election firewall has not done enough to protect Ireland’s abortion referendum from outside interference.
  • Facebook said its transparency measures will be strengthened before they are rolled out globally.

Facebook’s new tools to stop election interference through political advertising failed in Ireland, which is due to hold a highly charged referendum about abortion on Friday.

That’s the verdict of experts on the ground as Ireland gears up for the May 25 vote on whether to repeal a piece of 1983 legislation, which placed a near-total ban on terminating pregnancies early.

The experts told Business Insider that Facebook’s new transparency tools, which were detailed by CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month and are being tested for only the second time, were “not enough” to stop interference in the referendum.

Facebook said it plans to strengthen the tools, while CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is in Europe this week ahead of the vote, told European Parliament that ridding the platform of election interference is a “top priority.”

The company introduced the “view ads feature” in Ireland on April 25. It enables voters to see who is targeting them with campaign messages on the eighth amendment referendum. The tool is being tested in Ireland and Canada ahead of an international rollout, which will mean it is switched on before the US midterm elections in November.

The increased transparency has yielded some troubling results, revealing the sheer scale of outside operators who attempted to hijack the election and swing the vote in their favour.

The Dublin-based Transparent Referendum Initiative is using an army of volunteers to collect data on exactly who is buying Facebook advertising on the abortion vote. Its data, collected using Facebook’s newly introduced transparency tools and made available in this Google Sheet, was analysed by journalists at Open Democracy and The Times among others.

Anti-abortion campaigner Lila Rose has bought Facebook ads around the Irish referendum.

caption
Anti-abortion campaigner Lila Rose has bought Facebook ads around the Irish referendum.
source
Flickr/American Life League

They found US and Canadian anti-abortion campaigners, such as Lila Rose’s group Live Action, were attempting to influence voters. The data also showed that a video featuring alt-right British YouTuber Caolan Robertson was being advertised on Facebook.

More insidious ads have also been identified. Ireland’s biggest broadcaster RTÉ was furious when a “fake news” video, mimicking RTÉ News, featured in a paid-for post on Facebook. RTÉ raised the matter with Facebook and the ad was blocked, but the user’s account was not because it hadn’t previously violated the website’s terms.

On May 8, just 13 days after launching the view ads feature, Facebook decided enough was enough. The company announced it would no longer allow abortion campaigners based outside of Ireland to buy adverts around the referendum. In the same week, Google banned all advertising relating to the abortion issue.

“This is an issue we have been thinking about for some time,” Facebook said in a blog. “This change will apply to ads we determine to be coming from foreign entities which are attempting to influence the outcome of the vote.”

Facebook’s election meddling protections were “not enough”

Transparent Referendum Initiative welcomed Facebook’s decision as “a step in the right direction,” but founder Liz Carolan said it was also an admission of failure.

“The decision reflects a recognition that their existing transparency efforts – which they themselves acknowledged were weak – were not enough to ensure that their platform was not being used to interfere with a democratic process,” she told Business Insider.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

caption
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
source
Leah Millis / Reuters

Her colleague Craig Dwyer added that he hopes “it isn’t too little too late” from Facebook. He said the Transparent Referendum Initiative has recorded an explosion in new adverts in early May, with 150 newly recorded messages appearing before the ban was introduced.

Dwyer was not alone in this sentiment. “Surely this could and should have been done months ago? Bit stable door and bolted horse at this stage,” tweeted Sinéad Redmond, a spokeswoman for pro-abortion group Parents for Yes. Sunday Business Post journalist Emmet Ryan added: “Setting a geographic restriction, which again is easy for Facebook, on political spending should be a no-brainer.”

Others, including transparency campaigner and former Storyful director Gavin Sheridan, said it strengthens the case for Facebook to be regulated. “Facebook are always late to the party,” he told The Guardian. “They were late with Russian interference in the US election… All their announcements seem designed to stave off regulation, and for me it boils down to do we allow them to self-regulate, or do we regulate ourselves.”

Professor Barry O’Sullivan, the director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytic at University College Cork, told us that “it’s never too late to make a good decision.” He added: “There’s still a lot of undecided voters so every little helps. I have seen a lot of social ads for the No campaign, so it’s likely to affect the No campaign more.”

With just hours until the vote, some have argued that this has been the case. Father de la Cruz, a Catholic priest based in Ireland, wrote in The Washington Post that Facebook had put “its thumb on the scale.” He said: “If the company indeed had a longstanding concern about election integrity, it should have announced its change of policy before the debate got started.”

Facebook wants a “free, fair and transparent ” vote on abortion

In its blog, Facebook said the view ads feature were “fast-tracked” in Ireland and will be supported by a verification feature when it is rolled out globally. This requires “the advertiser to be resident in the country where the election is taking place.” The banning of foreign ads on Facebook means the verification feature is now effectively in operation in Ireland.

Facebook added that it will work with organisations like the Transparent Referendum Initiative, political parties, and campaign groups to identify troublesome ads. Machine learning will also contribute to the project, it said.

Facebook said: “We understand the sensitivity of this campaign and will be working hard to ensure neutrality at all stages. We are an open platform for people to express ideas and views on both sides of a debate. Our goal is simple: To help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue.”