A new tool from Facebook allows users in Ireland to view the sources of sponsored posts ahead of a referendum on abortion rights. But critics say the tool fails the test of true transparency.
Launched initially on April 25 as part of a transparency pilot program, the View Ads feature shows Irish users all ads any Facebook page is promoting to people in Ireland, even if those ads are not in their individual news feed.
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The tool is part of a drive for transparency in political advertising by the social network. This became urgent since it was embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which 87 million Facebook accounts had private information harvested and potentially used to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and the United Kingdom’s vote on leaving the European Union.
Facebook has already successfully trialed the ads tool in Canada, said its vice president for global policy, Joel Kaplan.
Concerns were raised in Ireland that campaign groups and foreign influencers could use targeted advertising to influence the referendum (The New York Times). But Kaplan said Facebook hopes the tool, that will likely be rolled out globally by mid-June, will bring “greater transparency” to ads related to the vote.
However, transparency advocates say the Facebook tool doesn’t go far enough to make ads paid for by pages related to the referendum truly evident.
One of the most heated debates in Ireland’s history, the referendum will ask whether voters want to retain or repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, or section 40.3.3, that equates the life of a women and an unborn child, and prohibits abortion in nearly all cases.
The ‘View Ads’ tool *should* now be live for all Irish Facebook users, allowing you to view any active ads a Facebook Page is promoting to people in Ireland. Here’s how to access them on mobile (example from @Together4yes) and on desktop (example from @loveboth8)
Targeted adverts on Facebook concerning the vote have already included posts in support of repealing the amendment from pro-abortion rights groups the Abortion Rights Campaign, and the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. Anti-abortion groups in support of keeping the Eighth Amendment intact, including the LoveBoth project and the Life Society, have also posted sponsored adverts ahead of the referendum.
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“[View Ads] is a welcome development … but also it doesn’t go far enough,” said Craig Dwyer from the Transparency Referendum Initiative (TRI), a volunteer-run group scrutinizing political advertising online in Ireland ahead of the vote.
Facebook tool ‘falls short’ of transparency
But the database has found that many pages relating to the referendum are untraceable or anonymous. “We’ve no information as to who’s behind them or where they’re based,” Dwyer told WikiTribune over the phone from Dublin. “The new View Ads tool doesn’t really do anything to combat those pages.”
“Whilst we are able to go into any kind of page and view whatever ads that are active and being promoted to users in Ireland, it falls short of real transparency.”
Gavin Sheridan, the co-founder of Irish transparency organization Right To Know, also suggested flaws in the tool in a thread on Twitter. He pointed out that a new Facebook page for the website Undecided On The 8th was created on Facebook a day before “View Ads” was launched. The page – since deleted – promised to offer “the facts” surrounding the abortion debate. However, despite the transparency initiative that lets users see the page is using ads, information on who runs the Facebook page, who registered the website, and who is paying for the adverts wasn’t available, said Sheridan.
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Facebook’s View Ads tool and what they’re doing for openness “falls well short” of what’s needed by the social media giant to host a truly transparent platform, Sheridan said.
The Facebook page for Undecided On The 8th has been removed since Sheridan’s flagging of the account, and its website no longer loads, as of April 30.
UPDATE: The Undecided8 Facebook page *has been deleted*. Next step will be: a new page will appear and we will go through this whole process again.
Foreign influencers also a concern
Other transparency initiatives from Facebook including restrictions on who can post political ads will be rolled out before local elections in the UK in 2019, according to its chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer.
But, with just four weeks until the Irish referendum on May 25, advertising paid for by foreign influencers is already a cause for concern (The New York Times).
A €137,000 ($166,000) donation made by American-Hungarian financier George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (Irish Times) to Amnesty International’s My Body My Rights campaign, which advocates for access to abortion in Ireland, was ordered to be returned in December 2017. The country’s laws prohibit foreign donors making donations to groups involved in elections or referendums, the Irish Times reported.
But Ireland’s campaign finance laws, though strict, do not extend to Facebook ads, said Dwyer. This raises the risk of ads paid for by political groups overseas who wish to influence the vote, which Dwyer says is a “genuine concern.”
“Under legislation, people outside of Ireland can’t donate to a campaign, but with social media they can spend any amount they wish and target voters,” he told WikiTribune.
“[Facebook] is becoming increasingly aware that they need to do something and take action to address people’s real and genuine concerns around how the platform can be used in ways that can threaten the democratic process,” Dwyer said. “[But] we need more information as to who is behind these ads, how much are they spending, we need more information.”
According to Independent.ie, Facebook will block all adverts about the referendum on the Eighth Amendment that come from outside of Ireland. It may also do the same for future votes and elections in the country.
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