Tuesday 22 January 2019

'Fighting Fake News' podcast: Abortion referendum could be a magnet for disinformation - former minister

UNITED CAUSE: INM Group Editor-in-Chief Stephen Rae (left) with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
UNITED CAUSE: INM Group Editor-in-Chief Stephen Rae (left) with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

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 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".

And 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 misled public opinion.

Speaking on a special Independent.ie podcast, Mr Rabbitte said he fears 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 until 2014, said he would be surprised if rogue elements didn’t become involved in the referendum campaign.

"But of courses they wouldn’t necessarily identifiable to the average voter," he said.

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."

Ms Shanahan  said some online actors are "certainly behaving in a way that they are out to have much the same phenomenon that colleagues across Europe were telling me about five or six years ago.

"We’re not going to be immune to that sort of disinformation from now on," she said.

The podcast also included contributions from Jane Ohlmeyer (Erasmus Smith's Professor of Modern History at Trinity College) and Stephen Rae, INM’s Editor-in-Chief who was the Irish representative on the HLEG.

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