Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]


5:35 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Gabhaim buíochas to my colleague, Deputy James Lawless, for introducing this very important Bill, which has rightly gained worldwide attention. Why has it gained worldwide attention? The reason is that two recent polling events in the western hemisphere were influenced and continue to be influenced by bots. I refer to the American presidential election, including ongoing American political affairs, and the Brexit referendum. One of the most influential Twitter accounts discussing and describing Brexit was an anonymous one purportedly based in the south of England but only operating during Moscow working hours. That is the reality we face. As Deputy Butler said, everything is changed. The whole system of passing information to people and receiving it has collapsed from the old order into a completely new order. This legislation is an honest, serious and necessary attempt to catch up very quickly. We need to catch up with who exactly is pumping money into our political system. It is very important that Deputy Lawless's provisions regarding a transparency notice are introduced as soon as possible. We need to know who is spending money. We will have a referendum next year and people from all over the world on both sides of that potential debate are seeking to pump money into this country. As things stand, they will be able to stay outside our jurisdiction and target Facebook or Twitter ads here. That is wrong and unconscionable. They should stay the heck out of this country and let the Irish people decide these issues for themselves. I am talking about both sides of the debate that is coming up. This is a matter for the Irish people.

This has already happened in the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election. The result has been utter instability in the traditional democratic world order. Facebook and Twitter ads have turned out to be a threat to democracy but they can be an opportunity and something good. It is incumbent on Facebook and Twitter not only to examine this kind of legislation and the regulations that might come before them, but also to ensure that political advertising is treated utterly differently. It is incumbent on them to recognise that democracy is worth fighting for and holding on to and that it is worth ensuring that no nefarious influences are at play in our democracy. They should examine not only potential laws coming down the tracks, but also how they themselves do things. They have acknowledged the Russian bots that interfered in the American presidential election. One famous Facebook page, The Heart of Texas, a Texas secessionist page, organised protests around Texas. It is closed down now because it was discovered to be a foreign-influenced Facebook page. There were organisations on the liberal side organising protests in New York from anonymous Facebook accounts from outside America. This is the way things have gone and we must catch up.

Deputy Lawless's Bill seeks to target bots, which I have dealt with in what I have already said, but also the strategic communications unit, which is an absolute disgrace. Let us be clear that the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is not getting a slice of the advertising pie because he is not in Fine Gael. The broad shoulders of Fine Gael have elbowed into all these paid ads. The latest one, promoting Deputy Leo Varadkar and Deputy Paschal Donohoe in his own constituency, had 400,000 viewers and was paid for entirely by all the taxpayers of Ireland. This is wrong and should be illegal. I have already put it to my party that we should introduce legislation to ban any Oireachtas Member from appearing in paid advertising by Government Departments unless it is required by law, such as in the case of a signature on an official order. I refer primarily to Ministers because they are the only ones to have done this so far. It is utterly wrong and disgraceful that the €5 million from the strategic communications unit, SCU, is being turned into paid Facebook ads for Fine Gael and the Minister, Deputy Naughten, should be clear that they are only for Fine Gael Members. While Dublin traffic was at a standstill on Monday morning because of the Luas works, a Facebook video promoting Deputies Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe and the Luas was on air for well over 24 hours.


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