Friday 20 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Who decides when campaign ads warp into disinformation?'

Concerns about the undue influence of political advertising are often just excuses to limit dissent, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The Eighth Referendum in May was dogged by claims that it was being targeted by US-based anti-abortion organisations with deep pockets. Photo: PA
The Eighth Referendum in May was dogged by claims that it was being targeted by US-based anti-abortion organisations with deep pockets. Photo: PA

If there's one thing it would be good to see the back of in 2019, it's the assumption that anyone who thinks or votes in any way differently from the culturally dominant group must be either: a, lacking in education, humanity or sophistication, or b, under the shadowy influence of bad men.

Brexiteers; Donald Trump supporters; pro-lifers in the referendum; those who voted for Independent Peter Casey in October's presidential election - all were, and still are, widely deemed in supposedly enlightened circles to have been pawns in the hands of mysterious malign forces operating below the radar, undetectable except to those same enlightened ones, who would, of course, never be so dumb as to fall for such wiles.

Heaven forbid that we should ever give our opponents any credit for being able to think for themselves.

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Unfortunately, there's little chance of that generosity of spirit making an appearance in 2019 either. The new year has not even begun and already the Government is trumpeting the start of a consultation process intended to lead in due course to the creation of a souped-up Electoral Commission, which will not only oversee the smooth running of elections, but finally stamp out the creeping influence of hidden political advertising on social media.

First of all - no, it won't. The internet will always be one step ahead of sluggish efforts to bring it to heel.

Secondly - who gets to decide what is legitimate or illegitimate when it comes to political campaigning anyway? Everyone thinks they can recognise propaganda when they see it, and - surprise, surprise - it's invariably those other guys on the "wrong" side of the argument who are deemed to be up to no good. Isn't publicly funded government "information" a form of political advertising, too? Fake news, like hate speech, is in the eye of the beholder.

That's why the moral panic over undue social media influence on democracy has been, and will surely continue to be next year, exaggerated. The Eighth Referendum in May was dogged by claims that it was being targeted by US-based anti-abortion organisations with deep pockets, leading to sensationalist headlines warning that Ireland was being "flooded" by ads as "foreign groups invade (the) online abortion debate".

The Irish Government denied any involvement in the subsequent decision by Facebook, Google and YouTube to ban foreign advertising in the campaign, but the move was welcomed by pro-Repeal voices as crucial to "protecting the integrity of our referendum and political system".

When the figures were released some months later, they showed that a total of just €78,314 had been spent on Facebook ads, only slightly higher than the amount spent by Labour's Yes campaign alone, and the figure wasn't even broken down to see whether it was pro-choice or pro-life campaigners who'd spent more. To put it another way, the whole row was overblown from the start, but then it was never about the truth, it was about undermining the legitimacy of opposition, just in case the No campaign won.

It was the same when Brexit beat Remain, and Trump beat Clinton. The attempt to undermine the results began immediately, and have continued fervently ever since.

There are good arguments for banning foreign interference of any kind, for any candidate or cause, but that doesn't seem to be what's happening. Instead the only influence which seems to be problematic is that which challenges the government position, in which case it's not about beefing up democracy but suppressing opposition.

A robust Electoral Commission is necessary to enforce the rules, and it was in the Fine Gael-led coalition's programme for government, so there's no argument about creating one as such; the Taoiseach's concern at the misuse of social media to incite hatred or violence, as happened around the recent eviction in Co Roscommon, is also valid. It's equally galling that traditional media faces severe censure for publishing far less contentious material than that which appears on the internet every single hour of the day.

The consultation process being planned for the new year will also allow those who are sceptical about how it will work to put forward their concerns. Campaigners such as Turn Off The Red Light (an anti-prostitution advocacy group), as well as promoters of a concert with an anti-war message, have, after all, also fallen foul of the prohibition on political advertising.

Whatever the eventual outcome, an Electoral Commission that becomes a political player in its own right would be no help to anyone, but isn't that the risk when politicians start casting about for other mysterious forces to blame for their own unpopularity?

It's always possible to find some bogeyman to explain away awkward electoral results. Minister of State John Paul Phelan, who announced the consultation process last week, insists that he's "not a fan of banning things", but it's curious how politicians who claim to be against banning things often end up banning them anyway. Ministers of various slants have been itching to get their paws on the internet for years now under the guise of encouraging civility.

It's tempting to see these new moves as a fig leaf to cover what they've decided to do anyway, not least when an interdepartmental group set up to report on threats to the electoral process has already concluded there is a "high risk" to Irish democracy from the internet being used to "distort people's opinions".

That loaded word "distort" implies there is an agreed understanding of what it's right and proper to think, and that anything which deviates from that must be stamped out. That's a dangerous place from which to start, especially when there's little resistance to the seductive notion that Something Must Be Done.

Speaking recently, Minister Phelan declared that, in political advertising, "as long as people say what they are about, it is up to the people to make up their own mind". It sounds reasonable enough. Whether the proposals which emerge from the upcoming consultation end up as sensible as that remains to be seen.

Generally, it's best to start from the presumption that political opposition is rooted in genuine concern rather than venality, stupidity, or "dark money". No one's mind was ever changed by being told that they can't be trusted to understand the question.

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