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Opinion: The pollster controversy should alert us to possible issues with political campaigning online

Ethan Shattock says the incoming Electoral Commission must address fake polling and inauthentic campaign behaviour by all parties.

Ethan Shattock

PRACTICES THAT HAVE recently come to light involving “poser pollsters” are a timely reminder of the need for modern electoral oversight in Ireland.

Recent reports have emerged that Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party have all engaged in misleading polling practices. Some reports have suggested that this range of practices was well known within political circles and that certain techniques involved pollsters using fake business cards linked with the fictitious ‘Political Research Association of Ireland’ (PRAI).

While the scale of deception is not fully clear at this point, it has been suggested that certain people involved in the fake polling operation had been instructed to show these counterfeit cards to voters if asked for their identity.

Data protection concerns surrounding the potential collection of personally identifiable information have correctly been raised, but this is just one of many conceivable problems that these instances of voter deception raise.

While many parties now maintain that such activity no longer occurs, these past events raise critical questions as to how equipped the electoral system is to respond to future attempts at fake polling and other forms of inauthentic campaign behaviour. In particular, these events highlight the urgent need for clear and consistent rules to be established and overseen by a designated statutory electoral body.

Promised change

In January 2021, the Irish government finally committed to establishing an independent statutory electoral commission. This development is long overdue, and calls for a new commission can be traced back to a report by the Geary Institute in 2008.

Since then, the growing calls for electoral reform have been justified, as the statutory framework surrounding Irish elections is increasingly outdated. Different legal instruments address various forms of local, European, and general elections. None of this legislation addresses key issues such as digital political advertising and sanctions for electoral disinformation.

In addition, accountability for election integrity and reform has long been fractured between disparate statutory agencies, the Oireachtas, and governmental departments.

The lack of a designated body responsible for driving necessary changes has resulted in the slow and piecemeal progress of Ireland’s electoral system into the 21st century.

In an age where the Irish electorate is increasingly concerned about the authenticity of political information online, revelations of fake polling are disconcerting. In the face of growing uncertainty surrounding electoral disinformation and automated social media accounts, the prospect of inauthentic election campaigning online calls for close scrutiny as to how the incoming electoral commission should prevent future counterfeit practices.

While current revelations detail fake polling as an offline problem whereby voters were approached in person, it is critically important to prevent this problem from migrating online.

Irish electoral security surrounding digital campaigning is in a uniquely vulnerable position. A 2018 study commissioned by the Department of An Taoiseach audited the security of all aspects of Irish electoral security.

Out of seven different areas, online platforms were deemed to be at the highest risk of manipulation by inauthentic electoral behaviour. Online threats are linked to processes such as political microtargeting, whereby political and commercial actors can target voters with selective advertisements.

The online problem

The lack of direct regulation for online political advertising in Ireland exacerbates vulnerabilities in this area. Digital platforms provide capabilities for political parties to identify and manipulate voters in a manner far more efficient than door-to-door campaigning.

This undeniably raises data protection concerns but also points to the need for clear rules on future electoral campaigning, and for accountability to be led by the new electoral commission. In the General Scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill 2020, there are updated transparency requirements for political advertising, including the need to display “whether micro-targeting was applied” in advertisements, and “where applicable, a description of the criteria used for any such micro-targeting.”

Such requirements are a step in the right direction, but the need for permanent and informed oversight is needed to ensure that potential loopholes are avoided.

Due to the sensitive nature of restricting political activity, it is critical that any rules calibrated to prevent inauthentic campaigning involve human rights scrutiny. Laws and sanctions surrounding electoral campaigning in the online age touch upon the right to privacy, the right to free and fair elections, the right to non-discrimination, and the right to freedom of expression.

Balancing these interrelated rights in future attempts to ensure authentic campaigning is important, and ongoing consultation with rights groups would help to achieve this delicate balance.

While current revelations surrounding poser pollsters may reflect an offline problem of the past, the exposure of such practices should serve as a timely reminder of the need for robust electoral oversight of future online campaigning.

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In the face of an ever-expanding spectrum of sophisticated techniques to deceive and manipulate voters, the need for 21st-century electoral oversight in Ireland is greater than ever.

Ethan Shattock is a PhD researcher and tutor of law at Maynooth University. His doctoral research focuses on electoral disinformation, freedom of expression, and the right to free elections under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Ethan is a former intern at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. He tweets @shattockethan.

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