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Watchdog fears foreign ads could influence Irish referendums and elections

The Standards in Public Office said it is concerned about political interference from organisations outside of Ireland.

Image: Shutterstock/sitthiphong

THE STATE’S ETHICS watchdog is concerned that organisations based outside of Ireland may influence the outcome of an election or referendum by funding political advertising or digital campaigns.

In its annual report, the Standards in Public Office (SIPO) states that while there are prohibitions on foreign political donations, online adverts and campaigns are currently unregulated.

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 December 2017, SIPO issued a statement reminding people of the limits of political donations. It said that the Electoral Act (1997) had put in place prohibitions on donations from abroad “to protect against interference by foreign individuals or entities in Ireland’s domestic political processes, including elections and referendums”.

However 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.

Commission Chairman Daniel O’Keeffe said as “no legislative framework currently exists to address these matters, it would appear that an important and continually evolving tool in modern Irish political discourse is unregulated”.

He added:

This allows for foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums, with potentially significant consequences. The commission recommends that the Act be reviewed with a view to addressing this. This should preferably be done in the context of the creation of an electoral commission.

O’Keeffe noted speedy action is needed as several referendums are to take place in the coming months.

Referendums of blasphemy and the reference to women in the home in the Constitution are due to be held around 25 October.

He noted that the landscape of political engagement has changed in the years since the Act was passed, with the internet and social media now featuring heavily in campaigns, which he said is allowing  foreign actors influence Irish elections and referendums.

‘Significant consequences’

This could potentially have “significant consequences”, he said.

The government has been criticised for not taking the spread of “fake news” seriously. While the tech giants have taken action, it is voluntary, self-regulated action.

Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless has said the Taoiseach is paying “lip service” when it comes to clamping down online political interference.

He has questioned why his Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017 was opposed by government this year.

Separately, SIPO has also raised concerns about the regulation of expenditure in referendums.

“The Electoral Act 1997 is silent on expenditure on referendums, with neither expenditure limits nor disclosures contemplated by the Act,” said O’Keeffe.

The report finds:

It is only donations received that are regulated with respect to referendums, and not expenditure. Only those organisations that accept donations over a specified threshold are required to register as third parties. Expenditure is neither controlled nor disclosed.

For the first time, the commission is recommending that expenditure limits should apply at referendums as well as elections.

This follows on from a 2009 recommendation which called for transparency in funding and expenditure on referendum campaigns, third parties and political parties.

During the referendum on the Eighth Amendment criticisms were levelled at both pro-life and pro-repeal groups over their campaign expenditure and donations.

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