Who paid for them? Concern over spike in Facebook ads ahead of Ireland abortion vote

A divisive vote on abortion has emerged as a test case for democracies grappling with the dark side of political advertising on social media, writes Nahlah Ayed.

Irish PM stresses vote is matter for his people to decide for themselves

A campaigner for the Yes side in the Irish referendum on whether to repeal an abortion ban flashes a sticker prior to the vote on May 25. (Artur Widak/AFP/Getty Images)

With just days left before a vote on one of Ireland's most contentious issues, researchers saw a notable spike in the amount of advertising on Facebook trying to sway the undecided.

How much was paid for the ads, and where some of them come from, is unknown.

Sound familiar?

Like the Brexit and U.S. election votes, the campaign leading up to the May 25 referendum on whether to repeal an abortion ban in Ireland has seeped onto social media, with unregulated advertising on both sides of the debate targeting voters, sometimes with tailored, highly individualized ads.

Even more disconcerting to the Irish government and many citizens were the researchers' findings that Irish voters were also targeted by foreign advertisers — mostly on the No side.

But unlike the Brexit and U.S. votes, in Ireland, a transparency organization has been tracking the practice — and sounding the alarm — in real time. And the organization said there is reason to be concerned.

"This is a key battleground," said Craig Dwyer, co-founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI), a volunteer organization working in cooperation with University College Dublin.

Craig Dwyer is co-founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative, a volunteer organization keeping tabs on social media activity related to the Irish abortion referendum. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

"The vote on Friday is going to be really tight and it might come down to one or two per cent. And yes, it is a possibility that the role that social media has played could be a factor in which way that one or two per cent goes."

Divisive issue

Ireland's latest abortion referendum will ask voters tomorrow whether to repeal a 1983 change to the constitution — the eighth amendment — that imposed a ban on abortion.

The divisive new vote on an old issue has emerged as a test case for democracies grappling with the dark side of mostly unregulated political advertising on social media, and their consequences for the integrity of the democratic process.

It will also be a measure of the public commitments made by big tech and social media firms since the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal revealed a massive breach of private data and the misuse of social media for political gain.

Transparent Referendum Initiative has been tracking Facebook ads related to the vote since February. Of 1,300 ads it captured, more than 400 were collected just in the past week. The data is crowdsourced from a sample collected from 600 Facebook users, meaning it is only a snapshot of what is likely a much larger number of ads in reality. 

A woman reads a poster as volunteers from the Irish Society for Christian Civilisation made a public plea for God's help to protect unborn life in Ireland ahead of the May 25 referendum. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Some of the ads purport to provide neutral information or official government information on the coming vote but, in fact, advance an anti-abortion stance.

With virtually no laws regulating political advertising on social media, there is no way to determine how much money was spent on such ads, said Dwyer.

TRI also revealed a significant number of ads that originated abroad, especially the U.S., but also the UK and Canada, among others.

'This is our constitution'

In an unprecedented move, Facebook responded by banning all ads from foreign organizations early in May. It also fast-tracked its "View Ads" feature, which made it possible to better scrutinize all ads running on its platform in Ireland.

When it became aware of the concerns, Google went further, choosing to "pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment," according to a spokesperson.

During a scrum earlier this week, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called on foreign organizations to stay out of his country's abortion debate. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

TRI said the ban did not work, as advertising continues to appear on Google's gaming apps and international news sites.

And with the origin of some of the latest spate of ads unclear, Dwyer said foreign advertisers could still be behind some of them.

With just hours left before the vote, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called on foreign organizations to stay out of what's left of the debate.

"This is a decision for the Irish people. This is our constitution," he said in response to a CBC question at his final campaign event.

"So whether overseas actors are on the Yes side or the No side, we respect their views, but would prefer if they allowed us to make the decision for ourselves."

TRI said that prior to the Facebook ban, some of the anti-abortion advertising on the platform came from U.S., British and Canadian sources.

Irish electoral law prohibits foreigners outside of Ireland from donating to an Irish political campaign.

So there was "a real disconnect with what was envisaged by our electoral laws and what was actually happening now with these platforms and what they enable," said Dwyer.

Foreign involvement

One example Dwyer points to is a video advertisement titled "Body Inside My Body," which was made by Choice42 — a Canadian organization.

Reached by CBC via email, Choice42 said it is not a political organization, and is not meddling in Ireland's vote.

"We do not get involved politically here in Canada, nor world-wide," wrote director Laura Klassen. 

The Facebook promotion of the group's video "was not intended to target Irish voters, but rather to educate people world-wide about the value and humanity of babies in the womb."

The notion that foreigners could use social media in an attempt to influence the Irish referendum on abortion upsets Yes campaigners like Suanne Moore, who held a small gathering Wednesday in a suburb of Dublin. (Lily Martin/CBC)

​TRI insists that it showed up on an Irish Facebook account, indicating someone must have paid to have it appear there.

The Save the 8th campaign told Time magazine that the Google ban also constitutes "direct foreign interference in a referendum campaign" and added that foreign efforts were not helping their cause.

Geraldine Martin, a spokesperson for the anti-abortion Love Both campaign, said they spent little time worrying about the ban.

"I had to work with what I had in terms of reaching people and in terms of telling people just how extreme the government's proposal was," she told CBC. "I wanted to get our message out to the people through posters, through talking with [media] and yeah, you just keep going."

The idea of foreign attempts to influence the vote upsets Yes campaigners as well, including Suanne Moore, who held a small gathering yesterday in the Ringsend suburb of Dublin.

"To think that they have the right to dictate the choices a woman makes and accessing health care for her own body – it's insulting, it's degrading," she told CBC.

Dwyer said his organization, which remains neutral on the vote, isn't opposed to the use of social media platforms in political campaigns — but with safeguards.

"We should be able to use Facebook and Google and YouTube during political campaigns, but only when there is proper regulation and rules and information that I think voters need for free and fair elections."

The lesson for other democracies with votes looming, said Dwyer, is that governments must step in.

With files from Lily Martin


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.