Tuesday 19 February 2019

Ministers are invited to Facebook's Dublin HQ to boost online profiles

An email trail shows how the social media company is aligned with the Government, writes Wayne O'Connor

Stock photo
Stock photo
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Ministers are receiving social media training from Facebook to boost their profiles among constituents and get an analysis of how well they interact with voters, according to emails seen by the Sunday Independent.

Officials in the Taoiseach's Department were invited to Facebook's headquarters this year so they could be offered advice on running a junior minister's online profile.

The correspondence and emails show how closely the social media giants are affiliated with government ministers and their advisers. The emails and documents also show the company previously brought ministers to their Dublin offices for tips and training on using the website.

Facebook also contacted the Taoiseach's Department to complain that new European Commission proposals aimed at strengthening online privacy rules would "diminish" the money which tech companies make from online advertising. The company claimed the laws would impede innovation and "degrade the online experience of European users".

Facebook also warned the Government that new German laws aimed at reducing harmful content online contradict EU regulations. The laws, passed in June, force social networks with more than two million users to remove illegal content within 24 hours of it being notified of its existence or face a maximum fine of €50m.

During a meeting with former EU Affairs and Data Protection Minister Dara Murphy last April, Facebook warned him the German laws conflict with an EU eCommerce directive that removes obstacles enabling the use of online services across international borders.

ADVICE: Data Protection Minister Dara Murphy
ADVICE: Data Protection Minister Dara Murphy

Any move to adopt similar laws in Ireland would be of huge concern to the social media networks based here.

At a meeting with officials from the Taoiseach's Department in the US last year, Facebook said it sees the Irish Data Protection Commissioner as its main EU regulator. It currently employs more than 2,000 people in Dublin.

The complaints were part of a sustained lobbying campaign by high-ranking staff at the American company in which it discussed the implementation of regulations across member states.

Documents released to the Sunday Independent under the Freedom of Information Act show Facebook Ireland's head of public policy Niamh Sweeney told advisers working for former EU Affairs and Data Protection Minister Dara Murphy that experts could go through his Facebook page and offer tips to enhance his profile.

"We've done it with some of his ministerial colleagues," she wrote during an exchange with Conor Gouldsbury, who was then Mr Murphy's special adviser.

Mr Gouldsbury and Ms Sweeney were discussing an event the minister was to attend in May.

Mr Gouldsbury told her a workshop Facebook organised before the last election was great but "my main struggle is getting our constituency office to upload local content of interest to (the) Min's [sic] local followers - a work in progress."

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Ms Sweeney replied: "We should set something up to look at the minister's page with you. We can run an analysis of the best/worst performing posts etc and offer some guidance."

This guidance helps the owners of a Facebook page understand how people are engaging with it. These insights include demographic data about audience interaction and how people are discovering and responding to posts by politicians and their advisers.

The Sunday Independent asked the Government Press Office last week for a list of ministers, former ministers and advisers who have received tips and training from Facebook. It said it does not retain such records centrally.

Each government department denied that ministers had received training but little clarity was offered in relation to former ministers and advisers.

Sources with knowledge of Facebook's training programmes said ministers, TDs, councillors and unelected candidates across the political spectrum have received support from the company.

Facebook declined to give the names or the number of officials who received the training but Ms Sweeney told the Sunday Independent that such work is also carried out with officials in other countries. It has dedicated politics and government teams who assist parties or groups during campaigns.

"Facebook works with candidates and elected officials in Ireland and around the world who use Facebook as a way to communicate directly with their constituents, interact with voters, and hear about the issues that matter to their communities," said Ms Sweeney.

Further documents and emails show a sustained campaign of lobbying by Facebook and consistent contacts with government staff.

Ms Sweeney expanded on her previous discussions with officials in the Taoiseach's Department to express concern at the effect new European Commission regulations will have on Facebook.

The Commission said its new ePrivacy proposals aim to update current rules and reinforce trust and security in the EU's Digital Single Market. The rules, proposed earlier this year, would be enforced by Data Protection Commissioners in member states.

Under the legislation, businesses would need consent from users to access information on a device and users would also need to agree to websites using cookies - files that enable computers to remember the websites it has visited. They store personal user information that advertisers use to send targeted advertisements.

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Facebook criticised the rules in a briefing document sent to the Departments of the Taoiseach and Communications in May.

"This will further harm content providers' ability to monetise their websites," it says.

"These restrictions will, in turn, significantly erode the revenues of large portions of Europe's online content providers, which will be unable to earn money from ads and have no viable alternative business model.

"While Facebook agrees that people should have choices about the use of their devices' storage capabilities, we believe that the Commission's prescriptive approach inappropriately pushes people to opt out of third party cookies and similar technologies that are essential to the provision of the services they are trying to consume."

Sunday Independent

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