We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Electoral Commission

'Serious damage can be done to democracy' — Electoral Commission warns about disinformation

“Treat everyday like April Fool’s Day” when it comes to elections, a committee was told.

THE HEAD OF the Electoral Commission has said that people should “treat every day like April Fool’s Day” when it comes to elections because of the threat posed to Irish democracy by disinformation. 

Art O’Leary told the Committee on European Union Affairs today that An Coimisiún Toghcháin (the Electoral Commission) was trying to engage with voters to encourage them to “be their own factcheckers” ahead of elections.

“I’d love a feature film about voting,” O’Leary said about efforts to inform voters.

O’Leary cited research which shows that, of 53 countries studied between 2016 and 2021, 935 cases of disinformation targeting national electoral events were recorded.

A dispute erupted almost immediately after questions from committee members began, leading to Independent Senator Sharon Keoghan accusing the committee chairperson, Colm Brophy of Fine Gael, of censorship.

Keoghan, who was scheduled to ask the first questions to O’Leary as she had to leave early, was interrupted by Brophy after asking questions about what she called disinformation put out by government parties and politicians about the upcoming referendums.

Keoghan’s questions were ultimately put to O’Leary after they were rephrased so that they would be applicable to the focus of the meeting: EU elections. They included an inquiry into whether a class system would be implemented where some people would be factchecked but “government ministers and their cronies in the media” were allowed to lie.

O’Leary responded that the commission had limited powers when it came to factchecking and would focus narrowly on misinformation about the electoral process.

He said wider issues of misinformation were in the remit of the media regulator, Coimisiún na Meán.

However, O’Leary also said that the commission would put out truthful information about the electoral process, and correct misinformation that could directly affect the electoral process, such as false claims that the date of voting had changed, or that people would be put into a raffle if they signed their names on their ballots, likely spoiling them.

O’Leary gave other examples of false claims including baseless accusations of vote rigging, or saying that a ballot box was discarded without votes being counted, or that a polling station had been burnt down, saying that these should be monitored and labeled on social media.

O’Leary noted that the commission sought to balance freedom of expression with the right of the electorate to be properly informed, saying that he believed that Irish people were generally smart enough to evaluate political arguments and that too much interference might have a “chilling effect” on public commentary.

In response to an inquiry by Labour’s Brendan Howlin, O’Leary said that the Commission currently had 25 staff members, divided roughly equally between electoral operations, electoral integrity, and corporate services.

He noted that they intended to double this number by the end of the year and that they had a budget to contract outside expertise, for example, to temporarily employ people with digital skills unavailable in the public service.

Social Media

An air of disbelief could be detected in the committee when O’Leary said that he was very happy with the level of respect from social media companies he had spoken with, and that they had outlined their plans to deal with electoral misinformation, as well as giving the commission direct channels to senior personnel who should be informed of misinformation on their platforms.

“They are very, very conscious that their platforms are a place where quite serious damage can be done to democracy,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary specified that they had talked with Meta; X (formerly Twitter); TikTok; Google; and Technology Ireland, a tech business umbrella group, and said he was “very, very happy with the level of engagement”.

He also said that the commission would “hold everyone to account for the promises that they made” after the “white-hot heat of an election campaign” was over.

Robert Troy, Fianna Fáil noted that it might be too late by then, which O’Leary conceded, but added that the commission would have to quickly learn some harsh lessons.

“It would be a sad day,” O’Leary said, if he ever had to go to the High Court to compel a social media company to take down a post or ban a user.

Joe Duffy

O’Leary also took time to praise Joe Duffy for highlighting an issue that had caused considerable confusion: whether you have to submit a PPS number to remain registered for elections. (You don’t, read more here).

“People think there’s one big register. There are 28 separate registers in this country, and they don’t talk to each other,” O’Leary said, explaining why the commission wanted to reduce duplicate entries and needed identifiers like PPS numbers to do this accurately.

O’Leary said that, after Duffy’s radio show had aired, a surge of 4,500 people checked the register and updated their details.

O’Leary also said that the Commission hopes to be able to encourage more of the population to vote, including young people, Travellers and people with disabilities. 

The committee was told that there were plans to make all political advertising transparent, meaning that the person who paid for the and what groups it targeted should be made clear.

The accessibility of voting centres was also discussed, with O’Leary saying that it would be a big focus of the commission on election day. He noted that inaccessible polling stations were “dramatically reducing” in number, down to 23 at the last count. He said they aimed to reduce this to zero.

O’Leary also said that the commission would look into redesigning ballot papers to make them easier to read, including possibly randomising the order that candidates are listed, so that people with names that appear earlier alphabetically don’t have an advantage.

The Journal / YouTube

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel