Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for transparency in the disclosure of information in online political advertising; and to provide for related matters.
Online media and social media are at least as important and influential as traditional media in today's discourse and political debate, yet the same norms of behaviours, conventions and accepted practices are only beginning to emerge. Having been on Twitter since 2008 myself, I am familiar with the cut and thrust of online political debate. I recognise the strengths of the platform, including citizen journalism and wider engagement but it is also a challenge for accuracy, integrity and the truth. Identification and verification are far more difficult online and many actors may not be who they appear to be. False flag accounts and mass, orchestrated political campaigns which do not disclose their true purpose defraud us all and threaten our hard won democracy.
We have all heard of fake news and even of alternative facts. Bunreacht na hÉireann and the European Convention on Human Rights defend the right to free speech which includes the right to "shock, offend and disturb". They do not include a right to distort and conceal information and defraud the electorate, particularly when attempted in a systematic, large-scale way. We saw evidence in US congressional hearings on the last presidential election of what is alleged to have been a widespread, organised attempt at what amounts to voter fraud on social media. Congressional hearings heard how 126 million Facebook users in the United States were served content masquerading as local campaign websites but which allegedly emanated from Russia. We also have seen reports that similar tactics emerged during the recent Brexit debates and there is evidence that such activity is gathering pace here. Many well-known figures, including broadcasters and politicians, have seen their followings multiply in recent months, due to bots or unidentified accounts, presumably ahead of the next election or referendum. It is not difficult to game these platforms by generating what is called "fake organic" where multiple users make a post appear more popular than it really is by liking or retweeting it. There is a multiplier effect that is quite easy to control if one knows what one is doing.
These not only influence public opinion but can form an echo chamber, reinforcing a particular view for decision-makers and indeed broadcasters and falsely representing the public mood.
In case we think that we are immune in this jurisdiction, remember that six years ago, an eternity in politics and technology, in the 2011 presidential election, the "Frontline" programme saw an acrimonious debacle which led to much recrimination and arguably altered the course of the Irish presidential campaign. It is too late afterwards to address it when the damage has been done.
We have also seen the rise of online advertising, an extremely useful and progressive tool which I imagine most practicing politicians in this House, including myself, use regularly but without the checks and balances which traditional political advertising is subject to. If an anonymous organisation was to erect 1,000 posters in a village or town without a hint as to who funded, sponsored or published them, they would rightly be in breach of the electoral Acts. They would be subject to civil investigation and possibly to the Director of Public Prosecutions. However, the same thing can be done online in an instant with practically no safeguards. It would be possible right now for an international lobby group to purchase thousands of euro worth of advertisements on online social media and run advertising under a series of false flag accounts. This is clearly an affront to our democratic process. It is not yet illegal, but it is certainly dishonest. As we approach a busy period of referendums and elections, while we welcome the opportunities for wider debate and citizen engagement, we must ensure a robustness of content, safeguard our integrity and protect our democracy against those who would subvert it in organised, systematic and sinister ways.
The Bill recognises the large corpus of law that emanates from decades of referendums, in particular the McKenna judgments which state that public money cannot be used to sway either side in an electoral contest. The State is strictly neutral and this prohibition is restated in this legislation. The proposed measures are ideologically neutral. They apply equally to the left and to the right. Transparency takes no sides in electoral contests. It merely requires a standard of disclosure so that we know those who seek to influence our electoral outcomes are who they claim to be.
On the specifics of the Bill, it contains a number of definitions, including the definition of political advertising as advertising which seeks to direct the outcome of a referendum or election, to increase the popularity of a particular party or candidate for office, to influence the outcome of an industrial dispute or to influence a vote before the Oireachtas. The Bill contains a number of offences for failure to disclose the publisher or source of that information and a requirement to carry a transparency notice along with any online advertisements in the same manner that existing literature, posters and paraphernalia already require in the traditional world. It includes an offence of operating a bot, which is to have multiple fake accounts masquerading as individual entities which are actually deliberately controlled by a single user or single organisation to perpetrate political fraud. To quote the words of the poet John Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty". I hope the Bill will enjoy cross party support and I look forward to the wider debate.