An upcoming vote on abortion has turned Ireland into ground zero in the global reckoning with how foreign interests can deploy social media to distort democratic politics.
With the May 25 referendum less than two weeks away, Facebook announced Tuesday that it would stop accepting related advertisements from groups based outside of Ireland. The restriction testifies to the depths of concern that foreign advertising could skew the outcome. And it highlights the technology company's tortured attempt to move past criticism that it became a conduit for misinformation and outside meddling during the Brexit and US presidential campaigns in 2016.
"We understand the sensitivity of this campaign and will be working hard to ensure neutrality at all stages," Facebook said in a statement, adding that it is asking political parties, campaign groups and an unaffiliated transparency initiative to flag advertisements, which the company will then investigate. It is also deploying machine learning to identify inappropriate content. "Our goal is simple: to help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue."
The referendum will decide the fate of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, one of the most severe prohibitions on abortion in the Western world. Approved by Irish voters in 1983, the law gives the mother and the unborn an equal right to life and proscribes termination even in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality.
Debate over the Eighth has bitterly divided the Irish public; opinion polls suggest a slight majority for repeal. But it has also drawn the attention of international interest groups, lent a megaphone by social media as the influence of the Catholic Church has waned.
While Ireland forbids foreign spending in campaigns and prohibits political advertising on television and radio altogether, its election law is virtually silent on digital activity. As a result, individuals and groups from outside of Ireland - primarily from the United States, Britain and Canada - have been waging an online campaign to influence the vote, according to the Transparent Referendum Initiative, a nonpartisan organization tracking paid online advertising. Foreign efforts, still dwarfed by domestic activity, have mainly opposed repeal, the initiative's records show.
Craig Dwyer, one of the initiative's founders, said there had been an increase of 150 advertisements over the past week alone, including domestic and foreign messaging. "The million-dollar question," Dwyer said, "is how much money has been spent on these advertisements."
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company would not release that information. She also declined to offer any information about the foreign entities seeking to place referendum-related advertisements.
Data compiled by the initiative, which depends on crowdsourcing from users, reveals that numerous American-based groups have penetrated the online debate in Ireland.
Advertisements have appeared from Live Action, a group led by anti-choice activist Lila Rose best known for hidden-camera videos of Planned Parenthood clinics; Radiance Foundation, a Virginia-based anti-abortion group that has drawn criticism for using the mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement to shame women for ending their pregnancies; and Expectant Mother Care/E.M.C. Frontline Pregnancy Centers, a group that carries out anti-abortion activity in New York City, which it has labelled the "abortion capital." A post from Expectant Mother Care that appeared to target users in Ireland warned of "an existential threat" to the Irish unborn and shared a video from Save the 8th, the main campaign group urging preservation of the restrictive amendment.
Save the 8th has retained the services of Kanto, a London-based data firm and political consultancy tied to the Brexit campaign to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union in 2016. Kanto's director, Thomas Borwick, previously worked for Cambridge Analytica, the firm hired by Donald Trump's presidential campaign and recently accused of misusing the data of 50 million Facebook users. Borwick said he could not comment on ongoing campaigns.
James Lawless, an Irish deputy who has been a leading voice for digital campaign regulation, said the Irish case is significant because it reveals that the problem is not limited to Russian aggression but rather present in any high-stakes contest in which foreign actors can take advantage of pre-Internet election law.
"How we communicate has changed hugely," Lawless said. "But there's a total vacuum in regulation in the online space."
Last month, a communications committee on which Lawless sits in the legislature brought in a senior Facebook executive, Joel Kaplan, to answer questions about the company's role in the Cambridge Analytica controversy. Kaplan told lawmakers Facebook would introduce in Ireland a new feature, called "View Ads," allowing Facebook users to see all communications any given advertiser is running on the platform. The new mechanism, eventually intended for broader roll-out, represents one of a number of changes that Facebook, whose largest office outside of Silicon Valley is in Dublin, has made since the 2016 election. The social media platform has also modified its algorithm to de-emphasize political news.
Brid Smith, another deputy on the communications committee, welcomed Facebook's announcement on Tuesday but wondered whether it had come too late.
"It would appear that many, many ads have already been paid for," she said. "What happens to them? If these foreign ads were stopped entirely, that might be helpful. But I don't think it's that significant."