A display of good behaviour should now prompt global change

16 May 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
A display of good behaviour should now prompt global change

Following a surprise turn of events ahead of Ireland's abortion referendum, Ray Snoddy says it's time all countries reviewed their rules to take account of the new realities of global communications

Ireland has already changed, and in a dramatic way, following the path of modernisation in the wake of the sex abuse scandals that shook the Catholic Church.

Few would have predicted the scale of the majority in favour of same-sex marriage or that an openly gay politician of Indian heritage in Leo Varadkar would have become Taoiseach or Prime Minister.

The modernisation process will take another step forward next week - if the polls are to be believed - with the overturning of the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution which currently makes abortion, in what used to be a very traditional Catholic country, virtually impossible.

Inevitably passions are running high on both sides of the argument. But apart from meaning that Irish abortions will no longer have to be exported to England in future, the referendum campaign will be remembered for the behaviour of social media - and unusually in a good sense.

The usual gang of evangelical American Christians, not noted for their grasp of rationality, tried to muscle in on the Irish abortion referendum via social media.

Why would they not? After all the social media served them well in helping to secure the election of President Donald J. Trump so why wouldn’t they put their social media dollars behind the No campaign in Ireland.

Then something extraordinary happened. The social media giants have, to varying degrees, accepted what they have often denied: that they are a hybrid form of publisher who should take responsibility for what appears on their sites, both commercial and editorial.

After complaints, Facebook took down an anti-abortion advertisement that seemed to show a picture of a foetus in a toilet.

Earlier this month Facebook went further and announced that it would no longer be accepting ads on the referendum from outside Ireland.

Google trumped that and banned all referendum ads from both sides for the rest of the campaign wherever they came from.

Twitter had wisely banned all referendum ads from the outset.

This surely amounts to good behaviour by the social media, albeit under pressure. They didn’t have to do it, because it’s not only Ireland’s abortion laws that are antiquated; the country’s electoral rules have not been modernised since the 1990s well before the social media era.

In the absence of rules the social media billionaires could have done essentially what they wanted to.

But as Gavin Sheridan, chief executive of legal intelligence group Vizlegal, argued in The Guardian, the Irish political system has effectively outsourced the regulation of political ads to private US tech firms.

“Ireland has never debated the merits, or otherwise, of online campaigns; nor have we debated how we might regulate them so they are free and fair. It is about time we did,” Sheridan insisted.

Perhaps it is more than time that all countries reviewed their rules to take account of the new realities in the international world of communications, the big money that can be put behind online ad campaigns overt or covert.

It is relatively easy to produce a set of rules for a defined political space - a referendum campaign of limited duration with a beginning and an end.

It is also not impossible with a will and adequate resources to take down offensive material.

Facebook, again under massive pressure, is now employing no less than 7,500 human monitors to review material and in the first three months of this year took down, blocked or issued warnings about, 3.4 million pieces of “offensive” content.

Referenda and clearly offensive material is, however, neither the beginning nor the end of the problem.

The social media whose initial ambition was to sell people things, has managed to embed itself in the heart of political systems across the world, and certainly across the Western European democracies in ways that will be difficult for regulation or laws to reach.

The social media have underpinned the populism that brought us Trump, Brexit and the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties across Europe from the Netherlands to Germany, Austria and Italy.

The nature of this phenomenon is explored in a survey conducted by Pew, the distinguished American press research institute, across eight European countries, including the UK.

The survey found that in many countries people with populist attitudes are more likely to get their news from social media and that Europeans with populist views tend to trust the news media less than others.

According to Pew public attitudes to the news media are more likely to be divided by populist leanings than traditional left or right political identities.

And the distrust of the news media is likely to be greater in southern Europe rather than in northern Europe and the UK.

Those with populist views are likely to resent being labelled with such a tag, sensing, probably correctly, the presence of elites using it as a term of abuse.

Pew does at least move towards a definition of who these people are and what they believe - that the government should reflect “the will of the people” and that the people and the elites are opposites in the political spectrum.

The survey suggests that fake news has a future with a third or more of regular social media news users in France, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK not paying attention to where their news came from. Or presumably whether it was true or not.

There is no obvious solution to voters who get their news from social media other than the news media redoubling their efforts to ensure accuracy and continuing to expose that which is false.

The final burial of Leveson 2 and Section 40 rules in the Data Protection Bill should not be seen as an occasion for trebles all round.

Rather it should be the start of a renewed conversation about standards in a free and independent press - ready to take on fake news and populist irrationality in the UK, Ireland and everywhere else.


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TonyO'Meara, Sales, Agency on 16 May 2018
“Be good to do a survey on ad people and journalists to find out their political leanings to be honest. PEW research has some data indicating a left bias for journalists. If Irish anti-abortion money has to go to the US for advertising support it indicates thats likely the same for ad land.

PS: At least assume some of the people reading this are horrified at the application of UK style abortion laws in Ireland. I want to read about advertising, not your views on my country.”


17 Jan 2019 

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