Why Facebook and Google are banning adverts in Ireland before the abortion referendum

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Susan Devaney
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Facebook and Google have announced that they will be banning foreign adverts related to Ireland’s abortion referendum in a bid to prevent outside influencers swaying the vote. Here, we look at everything you need to know about it. 

This month marks a historic moment for women in Ireland. On 25 May the country will take to the polls to decide the nation’s future stance on abortion.

It’s been a long time coming. In comparison to other countries in the developed world, Ireland is considered to still abide by tough and draconian abortion laws. Unlike the UK, terminations are even banned in cases of rape, if a mother’s health is at risk, incest, or if the foetus has fatal abnormalities.

Under the eighth amendment, or article 40.3.3 - which was introduced in 1983, a time when contraception was also illegal in Ireland - abortions are only permitted if a woman is at risk of dying as a direct result of her pregnancy.

And, if an Irish woman decides to take matters into her own hands, she can be jailed for up to 14 years for having an abortion, such as by taking abortion pills bought online.

In short: the referendum has the potential to finally give women control over their own bodies and their own futures.

Which is why Facebook has announced they’re banning foreign adverts related to the referendum on their site in the run up to the vote. If the social media network has learned anything of late, it’s that their adverts hold powers of persuasion for many.

One evident example is the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal that forced Facebook to admit that the network had improperly shared personal data belonging to 87 million of its users with the London-based political consultancy.

Thanks to a whistle-blower, the scandal revealed that the firm worked with Donald Trump’s election team, and the winning Brexit campaign, to harvest millions of Facebook profiles of voters, enabling them to build a powerful software tool to predict and influence choices made when casting votes.

Which leads us to ask the question: maybe Hillary Clinton would currently be the 45th president of America if Facebook had done more after they learned of the data breach?

Following suit, Google has now announced a similar standing with regards to adverts. However, the tech company is taking no chances and has instead confirmed an all-out advert ban.

Moving forward, the tech giants are making an attempt to do better – starting with the impending Irish abortion referendum. As the social media networks aims for change, explains everything you need to know, what campaigners think of the move, and exactly how it will affect your feed. 

How will the change look?

 Google is taking no chances and has announced an all-out advert ban about the referendum

With two weeks to go until people across Ireland make their way to the ballot boxes, some have highlighted that foreign-funded campaigns – both political and religious – have already attempted to influence the result.

“Concerns have been raised about organisations and individuals based outside of Ireland trying to influence the outcome of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland by buying ads on Facebook,” the company said, adding it was “an issue [Facebook had] been thinking about for some time”.

“Today, as part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland.”

Facebook stressed that “the spirit of this approach [was] also consistent with Irish electoral law that prohibits campaigns from accepting foreign donations”.

The social network said it would rely on the efforts of both political parties and campaigners (on both sides) to “bring concerns about ad campaigns” to their attention.

Facebook added: “We will also be using machine learning to help us with this effort to identify ads that should no longer be running.”

US-based pro-life groups are among those who have bought online ads in the country ahead of the vote, according to ABC.

A new ‘view ads tool’, which is still in trial mode after launching on 25 April, allows users to see all of the ads an advertiser is running on the social network in Ireland. The tool has been tried and tested already in Canada, so Ireland is the second country to use it.

However, in comparison, Google is taking no chances and has announced an all-out advert ban about the referendum.

“Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the eighth amendment,” said a Google spokesperson.

They added: “As part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland.”

What do campaigners think so far?

Liz Carolan, a campaigner for transparency over paid online advertising in elections, tells that she “welcomes the move” but “more needs to be done in regards to transparency”.

She adds: “Many adverts are coming from untraceable sources. If you go on the radio to talk about the referendum you have to say who you are and what you do. This type of transparency needs to be applied to online advertising. Currently, as online users, we have no idea whose money has paid for the advert.”

In recent months, the Transparent Referendum Initiative, founded by Carolan, has been tracking adverts in the run up to the vote. More recently, the team had “picked up 144 different pages paying for ads [on Facebook] at one point in time over the last few months” that targeted Irish voters.

How have people reacted on social media?  

People have taken to Twitter to share their thoughts on the ban

It’s fair to say the change has received mixed reactions from people online. While many have praised the decision, some have highlighted that the move is maybe too little, too late, as the date of the referendum was announced last September.

Sinead Redmond, a spokesperson for Parents for Yes and Repeal UK, welcomed the change but challenged its timing.

“It’s obviously not a bad thing Facebook are banning people from outside Ireland spending money on ads for the referendum but surely this could and should have been done months ago? Bit stable door and bolted horse at this stage.”

“This is exactly how I feel about it, for all the good it’s going to do. My page has been FLOODED with anti-choice adverts for weeks and weeks now,” another user posted in response. 

“Facebook are always late to the party,” Gavin Sheridan, an Irish social media expert who has been following the digital side of the referendum campaign, 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.”

It’s obviously early days for the advert ban, but if it proves to be successful then it may be implemented in a similar way for future elections.

“We are looking closely at all elections and determining what steps we can take,” a spokesperson for Facebook told the BBC

Going forward, Facebook says it will require extra checks from across the world for people buying advertisements on political issues – such as guns, abortions, education and foreign policy.

The coming weeks will be an interesting, influential and an historic time for the people of Ireland – and the digital space.

Images: Getty Images / Unsplash