Facebook Tips the Scales in Ireland's Abortion Referendum


An employee of Ireland’s Transparent Referendum Initiative in Dublin, Ireland, May 17.

An employee of Ireland’s Transparent Referendum Initiative in Dublin, Ireland, May 17.


Photo:

Peter Morrison/Associated Press

Facebook

announced on May 8 that it would take it upon itself to monitor the Republic of Ireland’s May 25 referendum on abortion by banning all ads on the topic from foreign groups. The announcement read, in part: “We are an open platform for people to express ideas and views on both sides of a debate. Our goal is simple: to help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue.”

The announcement featured plenty of incongruities. Facebook claimed that helping “protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence” was “an issue we have been thinking about for some time.” But the social-media giant injected itself into a fierce debate over repealing Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion only 17 days before the vote. If the company indeed had a longstanding concern about election integrity, it should have announced its change of policy before the debate got started.

While Facebook claims to be acting in the spirit of democracy and transparency, its new policy isn’t in line with Irish law. The 1997 Electoral Act prohibits foreign donations for “political purposes” to Irish politicians or organizations but doesn’t say anything about foreigners buying online ads. Facebook is in fact limiting the right of free expression of those who use its platform in a transparent effort to affect the referendum’s outcome.

The truth is the Irish government and many in the traditional media have grown concerned that voters will reject their push for legalized abortion. Social media is one of the few avenues of public outreach left to those who oppose repeal of the Irish Constitution’s pro-life Eighth Amendment, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 1983. An independent member of the Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house of Parliament, accused Prime Minister Leo Varadkar last week of lobbying Facebook to ban advertising related to the referendum on abortion. Legislator Mattie McGrath said the ban was “preventing campaigns that have done nothing illegal from campaigning in a perfectly legal matter.”

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Facebook also announced in its May 8 statement that it would enlist the fact-checking help of TheJournal.ie, an online newspaper. “Stories rated as false by TheJournal.ie will see their distribution significantly reduced,” the statement said. If TheJournal.ie has a reputation in Ireland, it isn’t for neutrality. A quick look at the site’s Daily Edge section reveals an editorial bias for the pro-repeal “yes” campaign. Recent featured articles bear headlines such as “Cillian Murphy sent a cake to Together for Yes to thank them for all their hard work” and “A bunch of Irish comedians including Aisling Bea and Sharon Horgan have made a video asking people to be their yes.”

This site hardly seems a reliable partner in Facebook’s stated effort to protect views on “both sides of the debate.” Who checks the checkers?

As a co-founder of FrontPage.org, a website that has published articles in support of the Eighth Amendment, I have seen firsthand how Facebook puts its thumb on the scale. Earlier this month Facebook’s ad service denied our attempts to promote two op-eds by journalist Bruce Arnold of the Irish Independent, Ireland’s most popular daily newspaper. It also blocked our attempts to promote a letter signed by more than 100 Irish lawyers defending the Eighth Amendment.

Last week Facebook’s Dublin lawyers rejected our request to restore FrontPage.org’s ability to inform the Irish public on issues regarding the referendum. It isn’t too late for the company to admit its mistake and reverse its decision. That would truly serve the interest of freedom, fairness and transparency.

Father de la Cruz is a Catholic priest based in Ireland and co-founder of FrontPage.org.



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