Last week, in the midst of Ireland’s contentious abortion referendum, including accusations of anonymous funding of online ads and disinformation campaigns, Facebook announced it was cutting off foreign ads. Google quickly followed by rejecting all ads related to the May 25 vote. Amidst the backlash, Facebook then briefly launched its transparency tool—by mistake, according to the company—revealing that many of the pages were in fact managed from outside Ireland.
This drama demonstrates the importance of new international proposals—from the European Commission, France, and the Group of Seven (G7) ministers—that focus almost entirely on increasing transparency of ad sponsorship and disinformation. If the foreign interference and disinformation seemingly evident in Ireland is the new normal, transparency initiatives are critical but even they may not be enough to protect elections.
The prevalence of ads linked to anonymous websites and pages became evident once the Irish Transparent Referendum Initiative led an effort to crowd-source their origins. The NewsCorp-owned agency Storyful, which sources and verifies online content, found many video ads containing actors or published with the aim to mislead. In one example, a man posing as a hospital worker claims he worked in British “abortion wards,” and another appears on a fake YouTube account posing as that of an Irish broadcaster.
On Facebook, the accidental roll out of its “view ads” tool showed only ad managers’ location. More may be revealed when Facebook globally launches the new political ads authorization process it already launched in the United States. The new process requires those wishing to run candidate and issue ads submit proof of a domestic government-issued identification, verify a domestic mailing address, and disclose what candidate, organization or business they represent. However, these voluntary Facebook measures are more likely to be gamed without fear of violating a legal requirement.
Ireland shows how social media opens a gaping election regulation loophole in European countries where paid campaign advertising on broadcast stations has long been prohibited or limited (in Ireland, TV and radio ads are prohibited and even campaign signs are regulated). Advertising on social media provides a way to hide sources of spending, circumvent the media to spread disinformation, as well as introduce paid election advertising in countries with no history of it.