MPs criticise Facebook’s ‘not fit for purpose’ foreign ad ban as Ireland votes on abortion

British and Irish parliamentarians call for major changes to unregulated social media campaigning following openDemocracy revelations – but too late for Friday’s historic vote

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
25 May 2018

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Facebook’s logo | Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved

MPs and data rights advocates have raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of Facebook’s ban on foreign advertising ahead of Ireland’s abortion referendum, after an openDemocracy investigation found that campaigners outside Ireland could still pay for social media ads targeting Irish accounts with anti-abortion messages.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced a ban on ads relating to Friday’s vote that do not originate from advertisers inside Ireland. The move followed growing fears over foreign influence in the referendum and revelations about numerous online ads posted by groups in international and unknown locations.

But openDemocracy was still able to buys ads targeting Irish accounts with referendum-related propaganda from UK after the ban came in. From London, we set up a fake page called ‘Save Irish Babies’, and were soon prompted by Facebook to ‘boost’ our posts. We successfully paid to target Irish accounts in Dublin, Sligo and Wicklow. No VPN or sophisticated IP-masking software were used and we used a non-Irish address and bank card.

“This investigation demonstrates that the changes that Facebook has made regarding political and issues based adverts on its platform are not fit for purpose,” said Damian Collins MP, chair of the Westminster committee that is currently holding an inquiry into fake news.

“Buzzwords like AI and machine learning are all well and good, but it is clear that foreign individuals and organisations are still easily able to post adverts, demonstrating that a lot more needs to be done to protect the integrity of referendums and elections around the world,” Collins told openDemocracy.

‘This investigation demonstrates that the changes that Facebook has made are not fit for purpose’

James Lawless, a member of the Irish Parliament, said openDemocracy’s investigation raised “massive concern” about whether Facebook’s ban on foreign ads had actually prevented campaigners outside Ireland from influencing the vote. The referendum result is expected to be very close.

“The moves by Facebook [to block ads] came so late in the day that even if the platforms had a genuine intent to tackle the problem, the processes were not in place,” Lawless said. “As your investigation has highlighted, it was by no means robust, it might not even have worked. That is a massive concern.”

Lawless has brought forward a bill in the Irish parliament calling for greater transparency in online advertising and social media.

Such legislation is needed, he said, “to prevent the underhanded tactics we have seen on occasion during the campaigns in recent weeks, the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK, the presidential elections in the US and other less-known elections across the globe.”

“Our laws related to electioneering must be updated to reflect the new spaces in which people campaign,” he added.

‘Our laws related to electioneering must be updated to reflect the new spaces in which people campaign’

Gavin Sheridan, from the Irish transparency campaign Right to Know, echoed this call for government regulation of online political campaigning.

"We can no longer allow companies to set the terms and self-regulate how ads are seen in the context of elections and referenda,” he told openDemocracy.

“It is not up to Facebook, Google or any other company to choose what information to release or not release about what is going on. We need new, modern legislation to address how campaigns are run in the modern era. Self-regulation will simply not work.”

Social media played a significant role in the Irish referendum campaigns, with anti-abortion and pro-choice ads also appearing on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and other channels. Transparent Referendum Initiative researchers captured some 1,145 Facebook ads, including from groups in foreign and unknown locations.

Google also announced its own ban, on all ads related to the referendum. But reports suggest that anti-abortion campaigners have been able to sidestep this measure and continue to target Irish voters online by buying space on other platforms including news sites such as The Washington Post and The Guardian.

Guardian News and Media said it was “continuing to investigate with our ad tech providers” how this was happening and a spokesperson for the women’s site Bustle.com said it was “reviewing preventative options”.

A spokesperson for Facebook Ireland told openDemocracy: “Since introducing the policy, we have rejected and removed many ads which were in violation of our foreign ads policy. We use both machine learning and human review to identify ads that should no longer be running.”

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