Facebook has announced it has stopped accepting ads paid for by foreign entities that are related to a referendum vote in Ireland later this month, saying it’s acting to try to prevent outsiders from attempting to skew the vote. The referendum will decide whether to repeal or retain Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion.
“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. This is an issue we have been thinking about for some time,” the company writes today on its Dublin blog.
“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 says it’s stopping foreign-funded ads because additional ad transparency and election integrity tools it has in the works — and is intending to roll out more widely, across its platform — will not be ready in time for Ireland’s Eighth Amendment vote, which will take place on May 25.
“What we are now doing for the referendum on the Eighth Amendment will allow us to operate as though these tools, which are not yet fully available, were in place today with respect to foreign referendum-related advertising. We feel the spirit of this approach is also consistent with the Irish electoral law that prohibits campaigns from accepting foreign donations,” Facebook writes.
“This change will apply to ads we determine to be coming from foreign entities which are attempting to influence the outcome of the vote on May 25. We do not intend to block campaigns and advocacy organisations in Ireland from using service providers outside of Ireland,” it adds.
The social media’s ad platform has been under increasing political scrutiny since revelations emerged about the extent of Kremlin-backed disinformation campaigns during the 2016 US presidential election. And last year Facebook admitted Kremlin-backed content — including, but not limited to, Facebook ads — may have reached as many as 126 million people during the election period.
Concerns have also been raised about the role of its platform during the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership — with an investigation into social media and campaign spending ongoing by the UK’s Electoral Commission, and another — by the UK’s data watchdog, the ICO — also looking more broadly at the use of data analytics for political purposes.
At the same time, a major Facebook data privacy scandal that erupted in March, after fresh details were published about the use of user data by a controversial political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica, has further dialed up the pressure on the company as lawmakers have turned their attention to the messy intersections of social media and politics.
Of course Facebook is by no means the only place online where all sorts of foreign agents have been caught seeking to influence opinions. But the Cambridge Analytica scandal has illustrated the powerful lure of the platform’s reach (and data holdings), as well as underlining how lax Facebook has historically been in controlling the messages people are paying it to target at its users.
In Ireland, the company had already fast-tracked the rollout of its ‘view ads’ ad transparency tool — ahead of a wider global rollout planned for this summer.
And last month policy staffers told a local parliamentary committee that the tool would help eliminate 'œforeign interference' in the upcoming referendum.
Although clearly Facebook has decided that an additional stop-gap measure — i.e. of rejecting foreign funded ads — was also needed given the timing (and indeed the sensitivity) — of the Eighth Amendment vote.
Last month Facebook also trailed plans to require advertisers that run popular Pages and/or are trying to run ads with political messages to verify their identity and location. But those advertiser verification steps do not appear to be ready in time for Ireland’s referendum. (Nor indeed were they in place for local elections in the UK earlier this month — although in a referendum the risks to democracy from a skewed vote are arguably higher, given there’s no established process for a re-vote in a few years’ time.)
The simpler-to-implement ‘view ads’ tool launched in Ireland on April 25, according to Facebook, which makes it the second market after Canada — where it began testing the feature.
The company claims the tool “enables Irish Facebook users to see all of the ads any advertiser is running on Facebook in Ireland at the same time” — though clearly ad visibility is not enough of a barrier against election fiddling on its own.
Facebook also says it will be using machine learning technology to help it identify ads that “should no longer be running”. And it’s supplementing these AI checks with human review, saying it’s built relationships with “political parties, groups representing both sides of the campaign and with the Transparent Referendum Initiative” — and is asking them to notify it if they have concerns about ad campaigns so it can assess and act on their reports, having established a dedicated reporting channel for this purpose.
Last month it also says it hosted an information session about its advertising and content policies for referendum campaign groups.
“We understand the sensitivity of this campaign and will be working hard to ensure neutrality at all stages. We are an open platform for people to express ideas and views on both sides of a debate. Our goal is simple: to help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue,” it adds.
In addition to view ads and the decision to stop accepting foreign-funded referendum ads, Facebook says it is deploying its “Election Integrity Artificial Intelligence” for the vote in Ireland, as part of its efforts to identify fake accounts, misinformation and/or foreign interference — describing its approach as similar to what it did in advance of recent elections in France, Germany and Italy.
Last month its policy staffers also said it had set up an internal task force to handle the Ireland referendum.