Foreign and ‘alt-Right’ activists target Irish voters on Facebook ahead of abortion referendum

New data shows how social media has become a battleground in a transatlantic backlash against abortion rights for Irish women

Claire Provost author pic
Claire Provost Lara Whyte
25 April 2018

Lila Rose, president of American anti-abortion campaign group Live Action.

Lila Rose, president of American anti-abortion campaign group Live Action | Flickr/American Life League. CC BY-NC 2.0. Some rights reserved

Foreign and ‘alt-Right’ activists are among those that have targeted Irish voters on Facebook ahead of next month’s historic referendum on abortion rights.

Under Irish law, foreign citizens and groups are not allowed to make donations to Irish campaign groups. But these rules don’t apply to advertising on social media platforms, prompting campaigners to call for an urgent change in the law.

openDemocracy 50.50 analysed newly released data compiled by the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI), which shows that 145 groups and individuals have bought more than 350 Facebook ads about the referendum.

Most of the advertisers appear to be based in Ireland, but there are also foreign organisations on the list. Several of the Irish advertisers, including both anti-abortion and pro-choice groups, also have significant international connections.

One of the many video adverts features a rising star in far-Right media who has previously made YouTube videos explaining how “the alt-right isn’t dead”.

A spokesperson for the Irish anti-abortion campaign Save the 8th said in February that overseas influence in the referendum, set for 25 May, is “very hard to stop […} it’s reasonably unregulated”.

Liz Carolan from TRI told openDemocracy that Ireland’s rules on campaign donations are “outdated” and “did not anticipate and therefore do not cover direct online campaign appeals to voters from overseas."

“These rules must change, urgently,” she argued. “The only people making decisions and influencing voters should be those who have to live under the laws and regimes that might result from votes.”

Foreign organisations on the list of advertisers appear to be primarily from the United States and Canada. One of the American groups is called Expectant Mother Care (EMC) FrontLine Pregnancy Centers.

On their website, this group says that they “rescue moms and babies” in New York City, which they describe as “the abortion capital”. In January, the group was fined $1,500 by the city amid criticism that its centres mislead women about healthcare options.

Virginia-based Radiance Foundation is also on the list. It produces highly shareable anti-abortion multimedia content; 50.50 has previously documented its appropriation of Black Lives Matter language to vilify African American women who choose to terminate pregnancies.

Live Action, an American anti-abortion group led by activist Lila Rose, and perhaps best known for its undercover videos at Planned Parenthood clinics, also appears in the dataset. Rose was one of several speakers at last year’s World Congress of Families summit of anti-reproductive and sexual rights groups in Budapest, Hungary.

There is also the Canadian anti-abortion group CHOICE42; LifeSiteNews, “the #1 pro-life news website” with offices in Ontario and Virginia; and the French Fondation Jérôme Lejeune, which also has a Virginia office that funds Down Syndrome research and advocates against abortion.

Many of the Irish advertisers have international links and allies too.

One advert’s video – viewed more than a million times – is from a group called ‘Flipside Ireland’. The sarcastic, Vice-style film follows young YouTuber Caolan Robertson as he attempts to undermine pro-choice activists in Dublin.

In common with several other ads in the dataset, it is unclear where exactly ‘Flipside Ireland’ is based, or who is behind the page. But UK-based Robertson is an increasingly well-known face on far-Right media, with YouTube videos on, for example, “white supremacy & the KKK”.

He is also a former contributor to Rebel Media, a Canadian far-Right online platform to which former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson, and Lauren Southern, another far-Right YouTube star and one of several young women leaders in the alt-Right movement, have also contributed.

Other groups in the data include the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in Northern Ireland – which appears to be the Northern Irish section of a group that calls itself the “largest pro-life grassroots organisation in the UK”.

openDemocracy’s analysis of the data comes as Facebook launches a new feature on Wednesday 25 April in response to criticism that it has enabled powerful groups to unduly influence public opinion and elections.

The tool, set for a global launch this summer, is being activated early in Ireland ahead of the abortion referendum. It allows users to see all ads that advertisers are running; it is supposed to make it harder for advertisers to target individuals without their knowledge.

The new ‘view ads’ feature is “a small step”, according to Carolan from TRI, but it “falls short of the permanent, searchable open database of all ads that is needed”.

Gavin Sheridan of the Irish campaign group Right to Know added that Facebook's new feature “will address some issues, but it is voluntary and amounts to self-regulation”.

He said: “It's also only Facebook – other platforms exist and new ones will appear in the future. What we need is broad-ranging electoral law reform to bring us up to date with how campaigns are run in the 21st century.”

Icons of social media apps, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp.

Icons of social media apps, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp | Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved

Ireland has one of the world’s most restrictive laws on abortion, which is only allowed if medical practitioners deem that it is necessary to save the woman’s life. Public support for this regime will be tested at the 25 May referendum.

Internationally, women’s rights groups say that social media and digital tools including ‘bots’ are increasingly being used in fights over abortion rights.

50.50, openDemocracy’s gender and sexuality section, has been following these trends globally in its special series tracking the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights.

The TRI dataset, last updated on Monday 23 April, contains data on Facebook ads collected by the WhoTargetsMe plugin and marked as “IE” for Ireland, using a list of filter terms to identify ads related to the referendum.

Advertisers listed in the dataset include news and media organisations, politicians and satirical websites, as well as groups that have taken strong positions on the vote for and against abortion rights for Irish women.

One of Ireland’s biggest anti-abortion groups, Youth Defence, does not appear as a named advertiser in the dataset, but Save the 8th, which shares its central Dublin address, does.

There are also advertisers with names such as Mutts for Life and Artists for Keeping the 8th Amendment, and individuals including a man named David Walsh.

His advert (which is no longer online) said: “TOP of the morning to you, fellow Irish people! It's time to talk about the evil of abortion, and how you guys should think long and hard about your upcoming referendum.”

* Additional reporting by Peter Geoghegan

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