'Fake news' warning on abortion poll
Ex-minister fears outside forces may sway result
Anti-abortion extremists are likely to use social media to spread disinformation in a bid "to frighten the population into retaining the status quo", former communications minister Pat Rabbitte has said.
The ex-Labour TD, who admits to having his own perspective on the vote, believes the upcoming referendum could be influenced by outside forces who have no issue with using shock tactics.
His warning comes following the publication of a High Level Expert Group (HLEG) report which called for online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to take more responsibility in the fight against disinformation.
The report compiled for the European Commission notes that online sites "are becoming increasingly important as both enablers and gatekeepers of information".
It says policymakers should stop using the phrase 'fake news' as it has been "appropriated and used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable".
Instead it suggests the use of the word 'disinformation' to describe content which is inaccurate or designed to mislead public opinion.
Speaking on a special Independent.ie podcast, Mr Rabbitte said he feared the abortion referendum could be a magnet for disinformation.
"I would say from my experience the anti-abortion shock troops are prepared and have in the past used any means to prevail in the argument. That doesn't apply to everybody who is anti-abortion, obviously," he said.
"There is an element of the anti-abortion zealots who believe in shock and awe to frighten the population into retaining the status quo. I also think they are linked in to international organisations that have very definite views on this."
Mr Rabbitte, who was communications minister from 2011 to 2014, said he would be surprised if rogue elements didn't become involved in the referendum campaign. "But of course they wouldn't necessarily be identifiable to the average voter," he added.
Kate Shanahan, head of Journalism and Communications at DIT, agreed that Ireland could experience an upsurge in online 'bots' with views on abortion and Brexit.
"The worry I have at the moment is I think we have been in a safe space in terms of influence from outside, or other actors involved in political debates in Ireland. I think that's changing," she said.
"I'm starting to see bots coming in. I'm starting to see a nastiness coming into the debate."
The podcast also includes contributions from Jane Ohlmeyer, Erasmus Smith's Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, and Stephen Rae, INM Group Editor-in-Chief, who was the Irish representative on the HLEG.
The full podcast can be listened to on independent.ie.
Meanwhile plans by a new pro-repeal umbrella group to raise up to €500,000 could double the funds set to be spent by the 'Yes' side ahead of the abortion referendum.
The Together for Yes initiative will be officially launched on Thursday and will seek to raise €500,000 through online initiatives, targeted events and personal donations.
If successful, this would double the sum that various pro-choice groups have said they will spend in the campaign.
Anti-abortion groups told RTE's Prime Time they expected to spend €1.5m in their efforts to retain the Eighth Amendment which effectively bans abortion in most circumstances in Ireland.
A Together for Yes spokesperson said it would be "fully compliant" with Standards in Public Office Commission rules and most of the funds would be spent on printed materials, advertising and staff costs.
Separately, remarks by Employment Affairs and Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty suggesting that repeal campaigners won't accept a 'No' result have sparked fury among anti-abortion campaigners.