Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless has introduced a new Bill in the Dáil which he says aims to ensure integrity within the online political sphere and tackle the rise of phoney accounts and orchestrated, anti-democratic online campaigns on various social media networks.
According to the party the ‘Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017’ contains a number of measures aimed at exposing those that professionally engage in "false flag" and deceptive advertising in order to disrupt the democratic process.
The move comes after a recent report examining social media use during the 2016 US Presidential Election exposed that 126m people were shown Facebook adverts which purported to be from local campaign pages, but were in fact created and spread by Russian entities.
Deputy Lawless said: “We live in an age when online and social media is at least as influential as traditional media platforms. People are consuming more and more news online and social media platforms are playing a greater role in shaping political debate. However despite this the same rigour and robustness does not apply to verifying online content as our laws are still playing catch up in this area.
“If an organisation erected 1,000 posters in a town without disclosing who they were or who funded them, it would be a clear breach of the electoral laws. Yet the same thing can be done online in an instant and there is no obligation for any transparency at present.
“The Bill I have introduced will bring this transparency to the process by compelling any online advertising for political purposes to state exactly who published and paid for the advert and what the target market is. The Bill also requires a transparency notice to be applied to all online political advertising, stating the publisher and sponsor of the advert.
Mr Lawless went on to suggest the Bill explicitly makes it illegal for public monies to be spent toward a political purpose.
"I am also proposing a new offence for co-ordinating multiple fake social media accounts for political purposes in this country.
“It’s important that we move swiftly to bring some transparency and authenticity to political debate on social media platforms. There is growing evidence which shows that manipulation is underway by various actors aimed at undermining the democratic process. It’s important that we do all we can to protect the integrity of our democratic process here in Ireland.
Mr Lawless said that in an Irish context, there is very real concern emerging about the purpose and activities of the new multi million euro ’Strategic Communications Unit’.
"This legislation will help ensure that citizens can be reassured that none of the five million euro of their money will be used to advance any political agenda.
“There is no reason to think that Ireland will be immune from the sort of disinformation campaigns that are being deployed in other countries in Europe and around the world. There is evidence to suggest that large numbers of fake social media accounts are being created in this country.
"The experience in other countries has been that such dormant accounts spring into action during election or referendum campaigns, or at times of controversy. My and Fianna Fáil’s hope is that this legislation will help counteract any such effort to distort our national conversation."
Dáil Speech today by James Lawless TD on the Introduction of Social Media and Online Advertising (Transparency) Bill 2017
Online media and social media are at least as important and influential as traditional media in today’s discourse and yet the same norms of behaviours, conventions and accepted practices are only beginning to emerge. Having been on Twitter since 2008 myself, I am very familiar with the cut and thrust of online debate and that the standard rules of engagement often do not apply.
Whilst this can be a strength of the platform, allowing for citizen journalism and much wider engagement which is welcome, it is also a challenge for accuracy, integrity and the truth. Identification and verification is far more difficult online and many actors on the stage may not be who they claim 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 Heireann and the European Convention on Human Rights defends the right to free speech which includes the right to “shock, offend and disturb”. But it does not include a right to distort, conceal and defraud the electorate, particularly when attempted in a systematic, large scale way.
Public opinion is more and more dependent on social media for news consumption and opinion formulation and this is a strength of the platform. But it also its greatest weakness.
In the anonymous, online world how do we know we are who we purport to be?
We have seen evidence in the recent US Presidential election of what is alleged to have been widespread, organised attempt at what amounts to voter fraud on social media. Congressional hearings were told how 126 million US FB users were served content masquerading as Republican party websites but actually emanating from Russia.
We also have seen reports that similar tactics were a major influencer of British public opinion during the Brexit debate.
And there is evidence that such activity is gathering pace here – many well-known figures including broadcasters and politicians have seen massive unexplained growth in their twitter followings in recent months – presumably ahead of the next election or referendum.
It is not especially difficult to “game” the algorithms behind social media platforms to generate ‘fake organic’ – essentially to make a post appear more popular than it is and gain greater exposure by an army of fake accounts mass tweeting or mass liking certain targeted posts.
This can both influence public opinion as well as forming an echo chamber where contrary views are swiftly silenced and decision makers take a false but deliberately presented read on the public mood.
And let us remember an event in the 2011 presidential election, when arguably the course of that contest was changed on the FrontLine program by what turned out to be a fake twitter account. It is too late afterwards when the damage is done.
We have seen of course also the rise of online advertising; again an extremely useful tool which most practicing politicians, including myself use regularly – but without the checks and balances which all other traditional electoral tools are subject to. If an anonymous organisation was to erect 1,000 posters in a town urging a particular vote in an upcoming referendum, at the least they would be subject to a SIPO investigation to discover the funding, and very possibly to the DPP for breach of the electoral laws. Yet the same thing can essentially be done online at present with very little safeguard.
In fact it would be both possible and legal right now for an international lobby group to purchase thousands of euros worth of Ads on multiple Irish social media sites and run advertising under a series of false flag accounts. This is clearly an affront to our democratic process.
Were the same operation to be attempted with posters or printed pamphlets the electoral acts already include an obligation to carry the publisher and printer of the literature on the material. Yet to date, the electoral laws have not kept pace with the new online realities.
It is not yet illegal, but it is clearly dishonest.
As we approach a busy period of referenda and elections, whilst we should welcome the opportunities presented for greater citizen engagement and a broader debate, we must ensure a robustness of content, safeguard integrity and protect our democracy against those who would subvert it in an organised, systematic and sinister way.
Finally the bill recognises the large corpus of law that emanates from decades of referenda and 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 ; applies equally to alt-right and to alt-left, such as they exist. Transparency takes no sides in electoral contests. Merely requires a standard of disclosure so that we know those that seek to influence are who they claim to be.
In terms of the specifics of the bill –
The bill primarily deals with online political advertising.
s.2 contains a number of definitions, including what it is meant to be directed towards a political purpose; borrowing a standard definition from the electoral acts, a political purpose means one that is intended to influence the outcome of a referendum or election, to increase the popularity of a particular party or candidate for public office, to influence the outcome of an industrial dispute, or to influence a pending vote before the Oireachtas.
The bill is primarily concerned with paid advertising content. To the ordinary user there should be no impact other than that their feed is more transparent in source.
s.3 restates the prohibition on political advertising from the public purse
s.4 defines the transparency notice
For anyone, including of course politicians, who wish to run online political advertising, there will be a new requirement to include a transparency notice. This notice is to appear as a form of ticker tape somewhere on the Ad confirming who sponsored and commissioned the Ad – in the same way as is already required for traditional, offline election materials.
s. 5 creates new offences for non-disclosure, failure to supply accurate and correct information as to the source or the publisher of the advertisement – in the same way as it is currently an offence to give false information to SIPO or make a bogus electoral return.
s. 6 creates the new offence of operating a “bot” for political purposes; with a bot defined as 25 or more individual accounts or profiles, operated by a single user but masquerading as individual and separate accounts.
The bill is intended to bring a robustness and level of integrity to the online political space that is already present in every other political engagement, and by doing so to safeguard our hard won democracy.
To close in the words of the poet John Keats: “Truth is beauty, beauty is truth”.
I hope the bill will enjoy cross party support and I look forward to further debate.
Thank you Ceann Comhairle.