It’s sometimes hard to know who’s really behind decisions at big tech firms. It could have been the PR team (‘we don’t want more negative press’), the policy team (‘the luddites in parliament want to regulate us’) or the engineers (‘we can’t stop it’). Whoever it was, a couple of weeks back both Google and Facebook announced measures to prevent foreign interference in tomorrow's Irish referendum on the eighth amendment, which effectively outlaws abortion. Facebook is only allowing organisations based in Ireland to run ads about the subject; Google’s gone one further and banned them all.
I suspect it was a rare instance of everyone agreeing. After relentless stories about Cambridge Analytica and Russia meddling, the tech firms – especially Facebook – promised action. They said they’d restrict political ad purchasing and hire more people to manually review content. Twitter created an ‘Advertising Transparency Center’ to show how much money each campaign spent on advertising, the identity of the organisation funding the campaign and what targeting demographics were used.
This would all be far easier if there were laws governing online ads during election. Election law is hopelessly out of date practically everywhere, including in Ireland. You can’t blame the tech firms for that. So this is probably a wise move, as I’m sure they don’t want to mess up elections, even if it does make them money. They’re nervous about being viewed as ‘publishers’ who are responsible for everything posted on their site, like newspapers are. Personally, I don’t they should. But ads are different, because that is where they are directly charging for what’s posted. They are therefore especially sensitive to dodgy ads. And they definitely don’t want any more Cambridge Analytica-style headlines. As this week’s shambolic EU ‘questioning’ of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg showed, there’s a lot of unhappy lawmakers around, chests all puffed, looking for any chance to land a few blows while the company’s on the ropes.
This vote came too soon for both companies. They obviously couldn’t build the tech quickly enough, and so took the safe route – ban ads outside Ireland or stop them entirely. It was the right thing to do, even though some groups have, predictably enough, already skirted the bans.
The wider problem of course is that ads are only one part of how the platforms can influence opinion during elections. A networked world where everyone is posting from everywhere all the time is simply impossible to control. It is practically impossible, for example, for a social media platform to stop users based anywhere in the world to run influence campaigns targeting elections or referendums based in other countries. This matters because the point of international meddling in elections is often not to swing the result, but to stoke tension. You don't need paid for adverts to do that. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018, Russian bots and trolls started posting inflammatory content about gun control on both sides of the argument. The same thing happened after shootings in Las Vegas, the NFL protests and high-profile news stories about sexual misconduct. According to the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, this now constitutes a ‘serious threat’ to democracy – not because it might decisively swing an election, but rather because it chips away at social cohesion and public confidence in the democratic system itself. The Kremlin doesn’t care what the US law is on gun control – but they’re happy if Americans are arguing. And no matter what the tech firms do, I don’t see any obvious end to that.