Watchdog urges law for social media

The Press Ombudsman and Press Council have called for regulation of social media to stop spin, lies, and corporate interests distorting debate.

The media watchdogs welcomed moves by Facebook and Google to restrict referendum advertising amid concerns over their origin.

Press Council chairman Sean Donlon said the companies themselves recognise that the content they carry could influence votes while lacking transparency or accountability.

Mr Donlon and Ombudsman Peter Feeney said more needs to be done on an ongoing basis and if the companies do not voluntarily take responsibility, they must be obliged to do so.

“The public are entitled to information about the referendum but what appears on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is obscure,” said Mr Feeney. “It’s not clear who is behind it, who has funded it, whether it’s genuine, whether it’s open to scrutiny.

“This is something that the Government has to begin to address very seriously.”

Traditional media are subject to oversight by the Press Council, the Broadcasting Authority, and the Advertising Standards Authority yet social media, which enjoys 85% of advertising revenue, escapes regulation.

Mr Donlon said that, in the case of social media, he sees a role for an international body.

“When aviation became an international issue, the UN set up the International Civil Aviation Organisation,” he said.

“I don’t see any reason why, whether at European level or at UN or world level, governments should not get together and deal with this problem.”

Mr Feeney highlighted another “gap in the regulatory environment” following the row over Government advertisements promoting the Ireland 2040 national development plan that were deliberately designed to appear as newspaper articles.

He said complaints about advertorials should go to the Advertising Standards Authority but it has ruled that they are outside its remit because they are classed as non-commercial.

They were speaking at the publication of their annual report, which showed 330 complaints were made last year, although 147 were outside the Ombudsman’s remit and 112 were requests for information on the complaints process.

A further 31 were resolved through the Ombudsman’s conciliation process and just 21 went to full adjudication which resulted in five being upheld, two against the Irish Daily Star and one each against the Irish Times, Irish Independent, and the Herald. The latter successfully appealed to the Press Council.

The five cases involved complaints about truth and accuracy, breach of privacy, and failure to distinguish fact and comment.

Mr Donlon expressed disappointment that there has been no progress on Government promises to review the Defamation Act in light of ongoing punitive damages awarded to complainants.

He said that in the 15 months since the Press Council and other parties made detailed submissions, the response from the Department of Justice has been “silence”. He said “disproportionate” awards need to be addressed “or some publishers will simply go under”

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