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With Facebook Ads, U.S. Groups Seek to Influence Outcome of Referendum

Earlier this month, Facebook users in Ireland started seeing a couple of posts in support of the 8th Amendment, from “Expectant Mother Care-EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers”.

The New York-based group bought these advertisements in an effort to influence the upcoming referendum on the amendment, said Chris Slattery, founder and CEO of the organisation.

“I was requested by Irish pro-life activists to stir up Americans to stand with them to support the 8th Amendment,” Slattery said by telephone on 19 March.

Heeding this request, Slattery spent “a couple of hundred dollars” or “a few hundred dollars” (his answer varied during our conversation) boosting posts to his “friends in Ireland”, he said.

“As an Irish-American pro-lifer, I feel I have the right to do that,” he said. “If I broke the law, come extradite me, send a garda over to get me … I could come have a pint over there,” he said, making clear that this response was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek”.

“My life is thanks to my Irish ancestors from County Mayo and County Tipperary,” he said. “I have every right to stand up for the lives of Irish babies … to use my voice and my group’s money to do that. I don’t want to be myopic and I don’t want to be parochial, we stand up for children of all nationalities.”

“People from outside are trying to influence Ireland’s referendum,” Slattery said. When I pointed out that he was one of these, and asked why it was okay for him to do it, but not for people with an opposing point of view, he cited the relatively small amount he’d spent, and his Irish roots.

“I am just stunned that I am being called by you and asked about this,” he said.

There is no way to know how many other advertisements, bought by foreign individuals or organisations are popping up in people’s Facebook newsfeeds, and perhaps influencing how they are going to vote in the referendum.

These adverts may look much like regular Facebook posts, with little indication that a person or group has paid to target you with them.

And this type of political advertising – which, famously now, with help from Cambridge Analytica, apparently played a major role in the 2016 American presidential election – is not monitored or regulated by the Irish government.

Transparency

The Transparent Referendum Initiative, a Dublin-based, volunteer-run organisation, earlier this year started crowdsourcing information on referendum-related Facebook adverts targeting Irish people. Their goal is to bring these adverts out of the shadows and into the light, where they can be scrutinised.

Unlike adverts in print or broadcast media which are spread far and wide, a Facebook advert might be targeted at a very small number of people, based on their location, age, views on the referendum, profession, favourite TV show, or whatever.

“This makes it difficult for journalists, campaigns and regulators to carry out the important work of making sure referendums are fair: fact-checking, countering misinformation and identifying where campaign financing laws are being contravened,” according to the Transparent Referendum Initiative’s website.

So the group, which, full disclosure, counts among its founders Liz Carolan, who’s a friend of mine, keeps a database of the ads it has discovered here, and continues to call for more Ireland-based Facebook users, regardless of their position on the referendum, to help it gather more data.

Looking at the Facebook posts that are in the database so far, it is not always clear that they’re advertisements. But Craig Dwyer of TRI explained by email that, “We know the posts have been paid for because they have been picked up by the WhoTargetsMe software which can identify an ad when it appears in someone’s Facebook feed.”

Among the ads in the TRI collection include dozens of posts from familiar Irish organisations such as the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and the LoveBoth Project, and at least three that appeared to be paid for by organisations from outside of Ireland.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony of me, an American, writing about American organisations trying to influence the referendum. Make of it what you will.)

Outside Influence

Of the three foreign-bought Facebook ads in the TRI database, the first is a 7 March post from “Dungarvan ProLife.com” about a 10 March 2018 “Rally to Save the 8th” event.

The Dungarvan group’s original post has been re-shared by Slattery’s Expectant Mother Care, which added the comment “Brits, Irish, Spaniards, Dutch, French, Yanks! JOIN this Rally for Life this Saturday, 3/10/18 in Dublin!” and paid to boost it and target it at people in Ireland.

The second is a post from Expectant Mother Care topped by the mood message “feeling motivated” and comprised of three photos of groups of people carrying banners, and including the message “FIRST PHOTOS from Dublin 2pm Save The 8th Rally to Protect the Irish Unborn”.

Slattery said he hadn’t been to the march. Which group or person in Ireland had asked Slattery to run these Facebook adverts? “I can’t tell you the particular name of the person,” he said.

I emailed Dungarvan ProLife.com on 18 March to ask what its relationship was to Slattery’s group, if any, and followed that up with a phone call and a text on 19 March. I had not heard back by the time this was published.

The third post in the Transparent Referendum Initiative’s database that I could identify as being linked to a foreign organisation was a post by the Karen Gaffney Foundation.

The foundation had shared a Fox News article headlined “Marc Thiessen: Babies with Down syndrome have a right to life”, and added the message “Thank you Marc Thiessen for standing up for Down syndrome!”

The post includes a button at the bottom-right corner that says “Learn More”, which is an indication that it is a paid-for post.

The Karen Gaffney Foundation is a Portland, Oregon-registered nonprofit organisation fronted by Karen Gaffney, who has Down syndrome.

Its website says it is “dedicated to championing the journey to full inclusion in families, schools, communities and the workplace for people with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities”.

I emailed the Karen Gaffney Foundation on 14 March and 18 March and called on 19 March but hadn’t received any response by the time this article was published.

The Electoral Act 1997 sets outs rules for the registration of third parties, “which are defined as any individual or organisation that accepts a donation given for political purposes over €100”, according to Sherry Perreault, the head of ethics and lobbying regulation at the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO).

It also provides rules for “election expenditures by candidates and parties, and sets out donation limits, thresholds and certain prohibitions on acceptance of political donations from outside Ireland (other than from an Irish citizen)”, said Perreault, by email.

But “the Act does not cover expenditure that occurs outside Ireland.”

Help Wanted

As far as I can tell, the only advertisements in Transparent Referendum Initiative’s database from foreign organisations are from these two organisations that do not want to see the 8th Amendment repealed.

When asked about this, Dwyer noted that the database is made up of ads seen by just 91 people using the WhoTargetsMe plugin. “As such, we can’t conclusively say that it’s only anti-repeal ads from foreign organisations that are being targeted at Irish voters,” he said.

“What we can say is that foreign actors are spending money to target Irish citizens with information aimed at influencing how they vote in the upcoming referendum,” he said. “Regardless of their position on the issue, Irish voters should not be unknowingly subject to foreign influence.”

TRI is recruiting more people to install the plugin and start reporting back data on adverts both from Ireland and abroad. “We want to bring all ‘dark’ ads on social media out into the open. We estimate we need at least 500 people to be using Who Targets Me to help us build an accurate picture,” Dwyer said.

“The fact that our project has been able to identify any ads targeting Irish voters from overseas demonstrates the need for electoral reform – an individual or organisation outside of the country is not allowed to donate to a campaign, yet technology allows that same person to contribute to campaigning by spending directly,” Dwyer said.

“The day after the Referendum, whether it’s a Yes or a No, we don’t want the conversation to be focused how the lack of regulations on social media advertising played a part in the outcome, like we saw with Brexit and the US Presidential Election,” he said.

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

 

Comments

  1. Log in to leave a comment.

  2. steve white
    21 March at 00:03

    “These adverts may look just like regular Facebook posts, with no indication that a person or group has paid to target you with them.” really?

  3. Sam Tranum
    21 March at 00:11

    Thanks Steve, I updated that.

  4. steve white
    21 March at 13:10

    Facebook newsfeed ads have the title Suggested Post, are you saying you don’t think that is enough?

  5. Sam Tranum
    21 March at 14:03

    On the three ads I wrote about, which are all linked in the article, I don’t see the title “Suggested Post”.

  6. steve white
    21 March at 14:40

    is this because you are looking at them via a link in the TREF database, which would be different if they appeared in your newsfeed, which is what these ad buyers are paying FB to do.

  7. Sam Tranum
    23 March at 10:04

    Steve, from the Irish Times (link below):

    “[…] A post will only tell a user it’s an ad if the user sees it in the moment when it’s been put in front of them because a payment has been made for it to be in their Facebook feed.

    “If a user clicks on that ad or shares that ad, it ceases to look like an ad. It just looks like a normal post.”

    https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/almost-100-facebook-posts-on-referendum-were-paid-for-1.3436765

  8. HUGH O'ROURKE
    23 March at 23:23

    Did you have a look at the Soros funding?

  9. Eoin O'Mahony
    26 March at 08:32

    @HUGH O'ROURKE: If he did he would have found a load of boring transactions buying properties in eastern Europe.

  10. steve white
    28 March at 17:54

    Still don’t think this sentence is correct “These adverts may look much like regular Facebook posts, with little indication that a person or group has paid to target you with them.” The explanation of how one could see a post that was originally a boosted post/ad without the sponsored content heading because it was shared by someone you follow, in The Irish Times article, is not in your article.

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