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Do you know where the adverts on your phone about the Eighth Amendment are coming from?

Every impression designed to appeal to the emotions of its audience is gold in the coffers of the advertising platforms, writes Davis Morrison.

David Morrison EU policy campaigner

IT’S MONDAY MORNING, four days before the 2018 referendum on access to abortion services in Ireland.

Margaret is on the train to Dublin. Scrolling through her social media feeds, a promoted image appears of a young woman, just like the women Margaret volunteers with. She has a desperate plea. It feels like a punch to the gut.

Monday evening, Padraig is home and browsing phone reviews. Between the paragraphs, a different image appears featuring a young boy. He stops cold.

When they ask their friends what they think of the images, Margaret and Padraig get blank stares. Their friends haven’t seen them, and they won’t. They have visited different websites, followed different pages, liked different bands, commented on different posts and revealed different information about their relationship status. Combining this information, each of them falls into a demographic and psychological profile that advertisers can target.

The images that Padraig and Margaret saw were designed for their eyes and for the eyes of those with a similar profile only.

Psychometric advertising

The advertiser knows their region. Knows how it voted before. Knows the demographics from the recent census. And knows how that information correlates to soft ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’ positions on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment. That’s traditional geographic and demographic targeting.

The advertiser doesn’t know Margaret or Padraig, but they do know people like ‘Margaret’ and ‘Padraig’. They know which interests, websites and behaviours fit different profiles. They also know which images and messages resonate best with the emotions of their ‘Padraig’ and ‘Margaret’ profiles.

This is psychometric advertising, coming soon to a referendum near you.

Irish citizens are to vote this year on whether to legalise access to abortion in Ireland. The referendum campaigns will be everywhere but no ‘Hard Yes’ or ‘Hard No’ voter will see the advertisements meant for ‘swing voters’ like Margaret and Padraig. The extent of the campaign, and the costs involved, will become apparent slowly.

No Irish group will claim responsibility for running it and it may only be after the vote and Standards in Public Office (Sipo) declarations have been made that we look further afield.

External influences 

We have seen the willingness of external groups to attempt to influence our votes.

Abortion is an important issue for donors in many countries and it is not unreasonable to expect, for example, an American organisation that says it will fight for either a No vote or a Yes vote in Ireland to receive substantial financial support. And, there is no reason why an online campaign with resources beyond any side of the debate in Ireland cannot be run from outside the state.

Will it happen?

The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) took out a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Independent to promote a No vote to the Good Friday agreement and UKIP placed 1 million leaflets through doors during the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign.

Outlets from the New York Times to Al Jazeera have already covered the upcoming referendum, so the international interest is already at least as real.

Will it have an impact?

Canvassing is King in Ireland. Personal interaction and stories play a key role in every vote and I have no reason to believe that increasing use of social media has trumped that. However, it is part of a matrix of communications and, given how close votes can be, the risk is real.

What can be done?

Ireland cannot pass legislation that would effectively curb online advertising managed by individuals or groups outside the state. Fianna Fail’s proposed online advertising bill would not work in this case.

Sipo has no power over actors outside the state and there are no limits to how much they could spend. Crucially, unlike in the case of UKIP and the AOH, this could be done without any of us being the wiser.

We’re not going to cut ourselves off from the internet for the duration of the campaign. So, we should take a step back and ask, who stands to benefit financially from such advertising? Every impression designed to appeal to the emotions of its audience is gold in the coffers of the advertising platforms. And that is where pressure can be applied.

Reputational damage

We have to talk about psychometric advertising managed from abroad and how Sipo regulations are toothless. We and our public representatives have to make clear that companies headquartered in Dublin are under the spotlight. They must at a minimum make clear who is really behind political advertising. What’s more, we have to make clear that benefiting financially from this type of advertising will be toxic for their reputations.

We are at a turning point where two fears of these companies begin to coalesce. Reputational damage and decreasing trust will lead to the first, less user engagement. This lack of trust will exacerbate pressure for the second, greater regulation.

Knowing this, tech companies are already attempting to catch up with public sentiment in the US. They see any regulation that could restrict development of their products as a threat to long-term revenue and instead want to be trusted and to self-regulate.

In Ireland, it is up to us to be clear that what Margaret, Padraig and all of us see in feeds during the campaign will be a test for their model. If they want to self-regulate, they must show that they are capable, that they take our concerns seriously, or fail to do so and see their business model and long-term revenue suffer.

David Morrison is an EU policy campaigner and communications consultant. He can be found on Twitter @davidmrsn.

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David Morrison  / EU policy campaigner

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