Responding to the challenges of digital democracy during Ireland’s abortion referendum

com.google.Chrome.eocx2f (1)On 25 May, Ireland voted by a two-to-one margin to allow its parliament (the Oireachtas) to change the constitution in a way that would legalise abortion. In this post, Liz Carolan discusses the role of digital media in the referendum campaign, the challenges it poses for democracy, and potential solutions to the problems she observed.

Background

When it was announced that there was to be a referendum on abortion in Ireland, not many people anticipated a landslide; I certainly did not. I had spent the previous five months trying to monitor the financial and information flows behind digital political advertising, witnessing attempts at overseas interference, disinformation campaigns, and unregistered spending. With a tight result predicted by both polls and campaigns, I thought it was naive to think that the digital campaign would not be a deciding factor.

The Irish vote had real and concrete implications at home, but there were international stakes as well. Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion was held up by activists in the US and elsewhere as an example to be emulated. Pro-choice advocates globally were watching too, as Ireland’s vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015 had emboldened equal marriage activists around the world.

So long before polling day, threats to the proper functioning of the referendum were evident to those of us spending time thinking about technology and democracy. The first threat was that overseas or untraceable financing would be used to try to influence the vote. The second was that deliberate disinformation campaigns could spread untruths, disparage campaigners, and polarise or isolate voters. The last was that a large amount of campaign spending could happen under the radar.

Digital advertisements are particularly interesting because they bring together money, information, and the algorithms that determine who sees what, and importantly who doesn’t. They are often only seen by those targeted with them and they are ephemeral, with the ability to appear and vanish without leaving a trace. They had been an avenue for the alleged overseas interference and deliberate disinformation campaigns during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election.

The work of the Transparent Referendum Initiative

Looking at the ongoing investigations into these cases, it appeared that investigators and legislators alike were having challenges even knowing what had happening online during the voting period. So in February some colleagues and I launched the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI). We decided to build a database of as many ads as we could, to make it available to as many people as possible, in as close to real-time as possible. We did this so the ads could be exposed to scrutiny, fact-checking, and source-tracing, so that any media or regulatory response could be swift and contemporaneous, rather than retrospective. Continue reading

Intimidation of candidates and others during political campaigns: the report and recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Photo.001Following December’s publication of the Committee on Standards in Public Life report on Intimidation in Public Life, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel on 21 March to discuss the Committee’s findings and recommendations. The seminar was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, Associate Professor in Political Behaviour at UCL and leader of Parliamentary Candidates UK (PCUK). The list of panellists included Lord Bew, who serves as Chair of the Committee. Overall, the seminar aimed to reflect on the Committee’s report and its wider implications for the nature of British public life. In this post, Lotte Hargrave summarises what was said.

Following the 2017 general election, the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to conduct an independent, non-partisan inquiry into the issue of intimidation and harassment during elections. The report undertakes a review of the intimidation of parliamentary candidates, a third of whom experienced harassment and intimidation during the campaign. The forms of abuse were, in the words of the report, ‘persistent, vile and shocking’; threatening violence – sexual or otherwise – and property damage. Intimidation and abuse were often found to be clearly targeted at certain groups, including women and ethnic minorities.

Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

The Committee’s Chair, Lord Bew, spoke broadly about the intentions behind the report and the purposes of the inquiry itself. He began by explaining that the inquiry took an independent, non-partisan look at all aspects of intimidation and set about explaining how the Committee understood ‘intimidation’, emphasising this to be behaviour which would make it less likely for individuals to participate in public life. Lord Bew stressed the Committee recognised that vibrant and robust debate is an intrinsic part of British political life, and that they recognised this to be one of its great qualities. However, they stressed something new was happening to ‘debase our public life’. Without intervention, the Committee were concerned that individuals – particularly those in marginalised groups such as women or ethnic minorities – would be discouraged from participating in politics. Overall, it was stressed that the Committee did not necessarily understand there had been a growth in this type of abuse but that the velocity at which it was being delivered had increased. Lord Bew stated that the Committee believed that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was a turning point, and that the problem has been exacerbated and abuse has proliferated due to the rise of social media.

Lord Bew reflected on the Committee’s meetings with social media companies (Twitter, Facebook, and Google) during the inquiry, and the companies’ ‘half-hearted’ attitude towards tackling online abuse. This was mentioned with particular reference to the slow speed at which they removed abusive online content, despite their extensive resources, profits and data collection activities. Throughout the inquiry, the Committee felt that social media companies were not doing enough, and did not display sufficient seriousness in their discussions with an inquiry that had been called for by the Prime Minister herself. Continue reading