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Advertising watchdog should be 'beefed up' so it can monitor online political ads

The minister said the ASAI should have statutory powers extended to it so it can take over monitoring the standards of political ads.

Image: RollingNews.ie

THE ADVERTISING STANDARDS Authority for Ireland (ASAI) should be “beefed up” and get additional resources to deal with the increase of online political adverts, according to Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform John Paul Phelan. 

The government has been discussing the best option for tackling the rise in online political ads, both domestic and foreign, which appear during election campaigns and referendums.

Phelan has now said the ASAI should have statutory powers extended so it can take over monitoring the standards of political ads. However, he acknowledges the organisation has some “reservations” about doing so. 

During the Open Policy Forum on Regulation of Transparency of Online Political Advertising, the minister said political parties are acutely aware of the current trends, both in Ireland and internationally, in the growth of online advertising over the other more traditional forms of media advertising. He said they’re also aware of the impact this may have on the outcome of elections.

He acknowledged the State doesn’t have any specific regulatory requirements in respect of online political advertising. And he added that the use of disinformation is a source of concern having particular regard to the various investigations that are currently underway in a number of other countries.

ASAI

During that same forum, the ASAI said its remit was to monitor the standards of commercial ads, not political ones.

During the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, the issue of foreign political influence through advertisements which appeared on social media platforms, such as Facebook, became a matter of concern.

In announcing a public consultation on the establishment of a new Electoral Commission, minister Phelan said the new body “will have a role to play” in the issue of online adverts. 

“Some political ads are very clear, some aren’t so clear,” he said, adding that his department is not in a position to monitor political adverts during a campaign.

During the recent forum, he said questions were asked as to who would take over the role of monitoring political ads, with suggestions floated such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, as well as the ASAI and the new Electoral Commission.

While he said the new Commission might set the standards for such political ads, he did not envisage it monitoring the adherence to the rules.

In order to address any concerns the ASAI might have about taking over the new powers, he said the body’s “resources should be upped so they could take on political ads” under their remit. 

He said the ASAI would be the preferred body to deal with the issue as political ads do not just run during elections or referendums, but can feature all year round. 

Phelan added that there is a “huge responsibility on social media companies” though he added that it is a responsibility that he does not believe the tech firms have lived up to. 

While he acknowledged that adverts paid for from foreign entities are concerning, he would not go so far as saying they should be banned.

He said it is his own view that adverts should clearly state what they are for and who paid for them, adding that he is “not a fan” of banning things in general.

“As long as people say what they are about, it is up to the people to make up their own mind,” he said. 

Facebook campaigns are not regulated by this legislation – meaning individuals or groups from anywhere can pay for Facebook advertising targeting certain demographics of Irish voters.

Banning ads

Two weeks out from the referendum on abortion, Facebook announced that it was banning all ads on its platform related to the referendum if they were from advertisers based outside of Ireland. 

Google and YouTube did the same, blocking all ads.

At the time, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed the move by the tech giants, stating that he was concerned about the ”extraordinarily inaccurate” adverts that were being shared. 

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