Six ways Ireland’s abortion referendum could be hacked this week

Anti-abortion money, Facebook ads and boots-on-the-ground volunteers have piled in from across the world to try and swing Friday’s historic vote. Will they succeed?

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Claire Provost author pic
Mary Fitzgerald Lara Whyte Claire Provost
23 May 2018

An anti-abortion activist confronts pro-choice campaigners in Dublin, 15 May 2018.

An anti-abortion activist confronts pro-choice campaigners in Dublin, 15 May 2018. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Terminating a pregnancy in Ireland is currently punishable with up to 14 years in prison. Polls suggest that while pro-choice campaigns appear to be ahead, one in six voters are not sure how they’ll vote in Friday’s historic abortion referendum, which means the result is too close to call.

In a small country, a little money could buy a lot of impact on the result. Irish anti-abortion activists, and their international allies, have been preparing for this moment for years. Just four groups raised almost €6 million (roughly €1.20 per Irish resident) from 2014-2016, before the referendum was even called, according to a new openDemocracy analysis of their accounts.

Meanwhile loopholes in Irish law – plus unregulated advertising on Facebook and other online spaces – make foreign influence in the referendum impossible to prevent. We’ve been investigating some of the groups seeking to influence the vote. Here are some of the most worrying things we’ve found:

1) It’s very easy to donate to anti-abortion groups without being an Irish citizen or resident (which is against the law)

Screenshot from the anti-abortion Love Both’s online donations page.

Screenshot from the anti-abortion Love Both’s online donations page.

Money has been “pouring in from small donors” ahead of the referendum. Irish law prohibits political donations from non-Irish citizens and residents. Ireland’s Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) says: “The purpose of these prohibitions is to protect against interference by foreign individuals or entities in Ireland's domestic political processes, including elections and referendums. Prohibited donations must be refused or returned.”

Both sides in the referendum debate say they're making sure that donations aren’t coming from abroad – but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. openDemocracy made small (€2-3) donations to four Irish anti-abortion campaigns online, all from outside Ireland, using non-Irish addresses and credit cards. The Life Institute and Abortion Never webpages note restrictions on foreign donations in fine print but others (the Pro-Life Campaign and Love Both) don’t, and asked that we opt-in (or not) to share our mailing addresses.

Screenshot from the anti-abortion Love Both’s online donations page.

Screenshot from the anti-abortion Love Both’s online donations page.

An automated email from The Life Institute said our donation would support a poster campaign in Irish cities and towns from Dublin to Donegal, and asked non-Irish donors to “please let us know and we will refund your donation immediately.” None of the other anti-abortion groups included this option for non-Irish donors in their thank you emails or donations receipts.

We tried to make similar, small donations to four pro-choice campaigns (Abortion Rights Campaign, Together for Yes, and Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment) online but they all specifically asked us to confirm that we were “either a citizen of the Irish Republic, or a permanent resident in Ireland.” Amnesty International Ireland’s referendum campaign wouldn’t accept a donation online at all without an Irish address.

We contacted each of the anti-abortion campaigns that we managed to donate to online to ask them about this, how they verify the eligibility of online donations, and how much money in foreign donations they have returned, if any. None of them responded.

We also donated to the Protect the 8th campaign but received an email from them saying that it would be refunded. On Tuesday, the campaign told 50.50 that it “is fully compliant with the law. Donors are required to give their address and there is a disclaimer on the page; ‘Only donations which satisfy the requirements of the electoral acts will be used for political purposes.' A donation of €5 was received yesterday from London, this has been refunded.”

2) It’s very easy to flout Facebook’s ban on foreign ads targeted at Irish voters

Screenshot of ‘fake’ Facebook page set up by openDemocracy 50.50 to test the ban on referendum-related ads

Screenshot of ‘fake’ Facebook page set up by openDemocracy 50.50 to test the ban on referendum-related ads ahead of Friday’s vote.

Two weeks ago, Facebook and Google announced bans on referendum-related social media ads targeting Irish voters. But posting a Facebook ad from outside of Ireland is still remarkably easy, as we discovered. After a short review process, openDemocracy managed to post two Facebook ads, targeting Irish accounts with referendum-related propaganda from UK, after the ban came in.

We created a fake page called ‘Save Irish Babies’, and were prompted by Facebook to boost our posts to attract likes. After the page was reviewed by Facebook, we successfully paid to target Irish accounts in Dublin, Sligo and Wicklow for 24 hours for £4 per post. The page was set up in London, along with a fake user account with a profile picture of a dog, but we set its location manually to Dublin. No VPN or sophisticated IP-masking software was used and we used a non-Irish address and bank card.

“Posting a Facebook ad from outside of Ireland is remarkably easy, as we discovered.”

This is part of a wider and continuing pattern. 1145 Facebook adverts have been captured by researchers with the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI). An analysis of nearly 900 ads found that not even half (43%) of their 224 advertisers were known to Ireland’s SIPO body, which monitors political donations and election spending.

When approached by openDemocracy 50.50, a spokesperson from Facebook Ireland said: “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. We’ve also set up a dedicated email channel for Irish campaign groups on both sides of the campaign and the Transparent Referendum Initiative to notify us about ads that may be in violation of our policies.”

Over the last week, TRI’s Liz Carolan said there’s been “an exponential increase” in the numbers of ads. “There’s a lot of groups that seem to pop up, fill people with information and then vanish,” she said. “Some of that content is gone and it leaves no trace. And it's very difficult to discern what kind of impact this kind of activity can have on voter behaviour.”

She called on Facebook to urgently release more information on who is spending money on referendum-related ads: “We don’t want to be in a situation like we are seeing in Westminster, where you have parliamentary hearings taking place two years after a vote. That’s too late.”

“We don’t want to be in a situation like we are seeing in Westminster, where you have parliamentary hearings taking place two years after a vote. That’s too late.”

3) Activists linked to far-right and ‘hate groups’ have also featured in referendum campaigning

Irish National Party leaders Justin Barrett and James Reynolds at the 2018 March for Life in Ireland.

Irish National Party leaders Justin Barrett and James Reynolds at the 2018 March for Life in Ireland. Photo: Flickr/National Party. CC BY 2.0. Some rights reserved.

Abortion Never is an “Irish nationalist anti-abortion campaign" launched this year by the far-right National Party, which was founded in 2016 by Justin Barrett, a veteran anti-abortion campaigner and former member of the group Youth Defense. It has put up “BABIES WILL DIE” posters across Ireland and printed “Don’t kill the nation in the womb” leaflets.

It is also one of the campaigns that accepted a small online donation from our reporters, in contravention of Irish rules. We contacted the National Party about this and asked how much Abortion Never has received (and returned) in foreign donations. They have not responded.

One of the Facebook ads targeting Irish voters ahead of the referendum is from a group called ‘Flipside Ireland’ (whose location and ownership are unclear). The video ad follows UK-based Caolan Robertson as he attempts to undermine pro-choice activists in Dublin. Robertson previously made a YouTube video on “white supremacy & the KKK” and contributed to Rebel Media, a Canadian far-right online platform. He currently works with former English Defence League (EDL) leader and anti-Muslim campaigner Tommy Robinson.

Robertson previously made a “white supremacy & the KKK” YouTube video, contributed to Canadian far-right platform Rebel Media, and currently works with anti-Muslim campaigner Tommy Robinson.

Toni Brandi, leader of the Italian anti-abortion group ProVita that has been linked to the neo-fascist movement Forza Nuova, also travelled to Ireland this month “to support-pro-life friends.” In Italy, ProVita recently put up a giant billboard in Genoa, with the image of a fetus and the words: "You were like this at 11 weeks: and now you're here because your mother has not aborted you."

In March, 17 US anti-abortion leaders sent a letter to the Irish Prime Minister urging him to protect the “jewel for the pro-life movement.” Its signatories included the president of the Family Research Council, a “hate group” whose “specialty is defaming gays and lesbians” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights organisation that monitors extremist movements.

A separate public statement from US “Friends of Ireland” said it would be an “existential tragedy” if the country’s restrictive abortion regime were reformed; its signatories included the alt-right, anti-LGBT “hate group” Mass Resistance and a former US ambassador to the Holy See.

4) Unregulated, ‘in-kind’ donations have flown into Ireland from across the world

Campaigners from US group ‘Let Them Live’ place their own materials over official referendum campaign posters.

Campaigners from US group ‘Let Them Live’ place their own materials over official referendum campaign posters. Photo: Emily Faulkner/Let Them Live.

International anti-choice celebrities have also travelled to Ireland to join what Steve Aden at Americans United for Life called “the ground game for the pro-life forces.” Foreign activists campaigning in Ireland recently include Claire Culwell from Texas, who was contacted by Irish groups via a Christian speakers’ agency, and Chris Slattery, who runs a New York City pregnancy “crisis centre” that was recently fined for misleading women about their healthcare options.

Slattery told 50.50 that he was in Ireland this month but said he wasn’t speaking to the press. But in Dublin, we spoke to other US activists with a small group called Let Them Live – one of several that raised thousands of dollars via GoFundMe online appeals for trips to Ireland. When contacted by Irish journalists about their visit, SIPO said the law is “silent” on donations and spending that “take place outside Ireland” and it has “no role” regarding foreign campaigners’ visits.

“We did fundraise some money, saying that it was a mission trip. I went on a mission trip to Peru one time and fundraised for it as a mission trip and this is the exact same thing. We are just here to save Irish babies and their mothers,” Emily Faulkner, co-founder of Let Them Live told 50.50.

She stressed that she was in Ireland independently and that she was not working directly with any Irish groups. “Ireland is special, because the constitution says the unborn are equal to the mother,” Faulkner said. “I wish we had this in the United States as well. My fiancé and lots of people I know have family that came from Ireland and without these pro-life protections in place, generations could be missing.”

Faulkner also sent 50.50 pictures of her group placing their posters on alongside official Yes campaign billboards paid for by Irish political party Sinn Féin. “I think there’s a lot of people who are undecided as to how they are going to vote,” she said. “It’s important to be reaching those people.”

5) Anti-abortion groups are well-resourced and have been preparing for this moment for years

Anti-abortion protesters at a rally in Dublin, 12 May 2018

Anti-abortion protesters at a rally in Dublin, 12 May 2018. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In November 2017, The Life Institute said its campaigners had already been “canvassing door-to-door” for 22 months for referendum votes. In February, LifeNews.com said the anti-abortion Save the 8th coalition was training a “massive campaign of 1,000 pro-life volunteers” to knock on 700,000 doors by referendum day. “Preparation has been ongoing for over a year.”

Just four groups (Family & Life, The Iona Institute, the Pro Life Campaign and Human Life International Ireland) raised more than €6 million between them from 2014-2016, according to an openDemocracy analysis of their financial returns.

In 2016, the combined assets of these four groups, plus the Life Institute, totaled more than €1 million – more than half of which was recorded as cash in bank accounts. 2016 was the year that a United Nations committee found that Ireland’s restrictive abortion regime constituted cruel and degrading treatment, and a Citizens Assembly was constituted to consider a referendum.

Ireland’s Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) ordered pro-choice Amnesty International Ireland in November 2017 to return €137,000 that it had received from Open Society Foundation (OSF) in 2015 on the basis that it was a foreign political donation intended to influence government policy.

Amnesty brought a high court challenge against this order in February, and told 50.50 that this funding was not provided or used for its referendum campaign. Online, Amnesty's campaign currently appears to be the only one, on either side of the debate, that restricts donations to those with Irish addresses.

6) There is a growing, organised global backlash against sexual and reproductive rights

A protester holds an abolish abortion sign at a rally attended by young people in Washington DC, 22 January 2014.

A protester holds an abolish abortion sign at a rally attended by young people in Washington DC, 2014. Photo: Aleteia/Jeffrey Bruno/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Some rights reserved.

The Ireland referendum campaign is just one example of how the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights is increasingly organised and internationally-connected. "Today there's really no such thing as a solely local or national struggle on these issues,” Isabel Marler at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) told 50.50.

Marler described “a large, well-resourced, and highly-coordinated global lobby” that is working to undermine the rights of women and other oppressed groups and “sharing strategies and personnel across borders, taking foreign money, and often from the US."

There have long been reports that the American anti-abortion lobby is funneling money into Ireland, but US groups aren’t required to disclose outgoing grants to international groups in their own accounts, and there are many dead ends and black holes if you try to follow the money.

"Today there's really no such thing as a solely local or national struggle on these issues."

Meanwhile, several US anti-abortion groups also have offices, affiliates, or branches in Ireland – including Virginia-based Human Life International. Students for Life Ireland appears affiliated with the US group that has the same name. Then there is the Irish Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a small but highly-visible group that has held protests attended largely by Americans.

The US Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) was founded in the 1990s. The Irish centre was registered in 2016. “We try to be as multinational as the abortion industry, and they make no apologies for sending in their international affiliates to pontificate to the Irish people,” Irish CBR activist Jean Engela told the New York Times, which said the group receives foreign funding but claims to be exempt from government oversight as an “an educational body.”

Andrew Stephenson from the UK CBR told 50.50 that they’ve “been involved in Ireland quite some time before the referendum and will be there for the coming years,” but stressed that CBR centres are not “political groups” but rather “about education which is essential for changing hearts and minds on moral issues.”

There are also affilliates of this group in Poland and Sweden. US and Canadian CBR activists travelled to Ireland recently too. Canadian Jonathon Van Maren said that up until the vote “pro-life activists will be on the phones, knocking on doors, and on the streets talking to passersby every day and every evening.”

What this means for democracy, everywhere

For the last 18 months, openDemocracy has been investigating the dark money that funded the Brexit campaign, and some of the groups that are seeking to influence political processes in Britain and across the world. Our findings have triggered questions in the UK parliament, global media pickup and a change in the law on political donations. We haven’t been doing this because we have a pro or anti-Brexit agenda, but because we believe it’s vital that citizens everywhere know who is shaping what they see and hear, and who has access to key information about their lives.

The regulation of democratic processes cannot be outsourced to tech companies like Facebook

Without this fundamental baseline of transparency, power is not accountable and elections and referenda – particularly tightly-fought contests – can be bought, or “managed”. The regulation of democratic processes cannot be outsourced to tech companies like Facebook. On Friday, Irish voters will consider a highly-charged issue of immense significance. It should be the Irish people who get to decide the referendum’s result.

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy 

Further speakers to be announced

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