By restricting online advertising, tech giants could tip the balance in this month's abortion referendum

As the referendum on May 25 to liberalise Ireland’s strict abortion laws approaches, Google and Facebook have intervened to restrict online advertising aimed at Irish voters. Facebook has moved against non-Irish advertisers, mostly from the US, posting on Irish social media. Google has gone further and banned all online ads relating to the referendum.

Although this may seem a neutral move, it is thought that this will benefit the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which bans abortion in most circumstances. The No campaign (against repeal), which has largely been shut out of the Irish press, has relied heavily on social media to organise.

Ailbhe Smyth, a leader of the pro-repeal campaign, commented that Google’s move “creates a level playing field between all sides, specifically in relation to YouTube and Google searches”. However, Laoise Ní Dhubhrosa, of London Irish United for Life, told the Catholic Herald: “This is a very worrying development. Our experience has been that traditional media in Ireland is extremely biased against the pro-life position; most of the Irish newspapers have an editorial stance in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. In that context, pro-life groups have to rely on new media, including online ads, to get their message out there. The referendum requires an open democratic debate, not one in which content is censored and shut down on dubious grounds.”

Despite enjoying the support of almost the entire Irish establishment, including most politicians, media and celebrities such as Bono and Liam Neeson, the Yes campaign has become jittery as its poll lead has narrowed during the campaign. Before the referendum was called, the Yes side outnumbered No in the polls by at least two to one, though a large proportion of voters said they had not yet decided which way to vote. The most recent poll had Yes at 45 per cent with No at 34 per cent.

Campaigners on both sides are also aware that, while Irish pollsters have a good track record in general elections, they are not very good at predicting referendum results. Whether because of a lack of popular enthusiasm for their proposals or because Irish voters tell pollsters what they want to hear, recent Irish governments have frequently lost votes that the polls said they were sure to win. So the result may be much closer than the polls suggest, and even if the restriction in online advertising only has a minor effect, that could be decisive.

A major background influence to the online ban has been the fallout from recent political events such as the Brexit vote and, more importantly, President Trump’s election. The unexpected Trump victory caused a breach in the alliance between the Democratic Party and Silicon Valley that was forged by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. A large part of the Democratic base, rather than accepting that they had an uninspiring candidate or a poorly organised campaign, blamed their defeat on “fake news” and in particular on Russian disinformation efforts. So far, though, the evidence of Russian trolls influencing voters to support Trump or Brexit has been very thin.

Since the shocks of 2016, social media giants have been eager to prove that their platforms are resistant to trolls and disinformation, but in the polarised atmosphere of current American politics this has only led them deeper into claims of bias. Facebook has hired fact-checkers to supposedly ensure impartiality, but has been accused of targeting conservative news outlets. The company recently drew fire for threatening to penalise the Babylon Bee, a popular Christian satirical site, for publishing “fake news”.

With US mid-term elections taking place in November, social media is likely to come in for close scrutiny. The Irish referendum move is billed as a dry run for tech companies’ ability to manage online political activity on the bigger American stage. But it also leads the companies into the minefield of foreign involvement in Irish votes, something that is both legally restricted and politically controversial in Ireland.

In fact, the Yes campaign has had the bigger legal problem with foreign involvement. Last December, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) ordered the Irish section of Amnesty International to return a €137,000 donation from the billionaire financier George Soros, specifically to assist its campaigns for liberalising abortion laws in Ireland and internationally.

Under the Electoral Act (1997), any organisation receiving €100 or more in donations for campaigning must register as a third party, and may not receive donations from any person outside Ireland who is not an Irish citizen – thus ruling out the Hungarian-American Soros. Amnesty has refused to return the donation and is challenging the ruling, arguing that SIPO’s strict interpretation of the law is inconsistent with the Irish government’s own practice in supporting human rights causes abroad.

Two figures at opposite ends of the debate are David Quinn, founder of the Iona Institute, which promotes marriage and religion in society, and Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.

At the time of the ruling, Quinn said: “I will join Colm in campaigning to change the Electoral Act. I am happy to see [it] changed, but in the meantime, you’ve got to obey it and not hold yourself above it; and also there can’t be double standards in how organisations are treated as to how they go about trying to raise money.” SIPO’s argument has been that the aim is to protect the Irish electoral process from foreign interference.

There are two things that make this procedural issue so sensitive in Ireland. One is the issue of money. Since a Supreme Court judgment in 1995 prohibited the government from spending taxpayers’ money on propaganda for one side in referendum campaigns, only privately raised money can be spent. This can eliminate the disadvantage for those campaigning against state proposals, but it still means the scramble to raise as much money as your opponents is half of the battle.

More importantly, Irish voters can be resistant to attempts from foreign countries – especially Britain – to influence Ireland’s internal affairs. On the abortion issue, which has attracted most foreign attention, the argument cuts both ways. Irish liberals have been keen to scare their voters with the involvement of American fundamentalists who may have little in common with Irish Catholics apart from opposition to abortion. On the other side, conservatives point to pressure on Ireland from UN and EU bodies to bring the country’s laws closer to international norms. And George Soros’s funding of political causes around the world, including his long-running war with Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian government, provokes controversy everywhere.

All of these claims of influence are exaggerated, but they do contain a grain of truth. Despite its rapid evolution into a post-Catholic society, Ireland retains one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world, and under the constitution the law can only be changed with the consent of the voters in a referendum. So the Irish result will be a huge prize to those around the world who are passionate about either side of the argument. It is no surprise that campaigners outside Ireland want to have their say.

But in the end, it is the Irish voters who will decide. Outside efforts may tip the balance if the result is extremely close. But more important factors will be the campaign on the ground, whether there is an enthusiasm gap between the two sides, and how much Catholic sentiment remains in a country where decades of scandal have demolished the Church’s institutional power.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the May 18th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here