On the eve of Ireland’s historic referendum on abortion, voters are being targeted with a torrent of ads on Facebook, including this one from the Catholic Good Counsel Network: “Women are abused by abortion profiteers lying to them and denying them facts,” says the ad, which originated on group’s Facebook page.
Among those "facts?" “Abortion is linked to breast cancer since 1958.”
Last week, Facebook made Ireland the second country to receive its new “View Ads” feature, designed to stop the kind of dark money and disinformation campaigns that targeted the 2016 U.S. election and the UK's Brexit vote. Facebook chose Ireland because it anticipated outside groups might use the platform to meddle in Ireland’s May 25 referendum, which could make abortion widely available for the first time in the country’s history.
But in its first real test, critics say it is failing. Anonymous ads, bogus accounts, and fake news appear to be spreading unchecked. They say the tool Facebook has rolled out is a pale imitation of what was promised and the watered-down version available in Ireland doesn’t allow users to see who is paying to influence the vote.
“I'm not sure people are getting the enormity of the consequences of stuff like this,” Gavin Sheridan, a transparency campaigner said this week. “It changes the entire information environment. As I have said for years now: only trust Facebook on what they do, not what they say. And what they're doing falls well short of what's needed.”
The Catholic Good Counsel Network ad was among dozens highlighted this week by researchers and activists as evidence that Facebook’s new transparency tool was simply not working. The tool is designed to help users see all the ads a specific page is running, even those that are not targeted at those users. Facebook also promised to tell users who paid for the ads and enforce stricter criteria on the content of those ads.
While Facebook’s View Ads tool did show all the ads run by the Good Counsel Network in Ireland, it failed to reveal how many times they had been shared or how many times accompanying videos had been viewed.
Platform of fear
Hundreds of U.S. religious and political groups have been using Facebook to influence the vote through a mixture of ad buys, misinformation campaigns, and fear mongering. Facebook hyped View Ads as a solution to this problem, and the wider issue of election meddling faced in the 2016 election in the U.S. and the Brexit campaign in the U.K.
But, in the space of just seven days voters have see a fake abortion video imitating Ireland’s state broadcaster; anonymous groups buying ads that erroneously claim to give “unbiased facts” about abortion; and creepy ads from pro-life groups that claims abortion causes breast cancer.
“It falls short of any kind of real transparency,” Craig Dwyer, co-founder of the Transparency Referendum Initiative, told VICE News. “It doesn't help us to tackle those anonymous pages, information about who is paying for the ads.”
The Transparency Referendum Initiative was established to track the influence of Facebook ads on the outcome of the referendum. To date it has found 470 ads from 160 different pages but as Dwyer admits, this is simply a “snapshot” of a much bigger picture.
“For Ireland, the big thing we want to know is who is behind the ads, who is paying for the ads, it's actually pretty simple,” James Lawless, an Irish lawmaker who is currently sponsoring a bill to regulate the use of political advertisements online, told VICE News.
Sheridan highlighted the problems with the lack of transparency in a widely-shared tweetstorm this week looking at a Facebook group called Undecided On The 8th, which targeted Irish voters with eight ads claiming to give “unbiased facts” about the vote. The View Ads tool was unable to give any information about who bought the ads or who was behind the group.
Further research found links between the group and a Catholic insurance agency in Nebraska, as well as a U.S.-based Catholic marketing firm called Fuzati, which was in Dublin last week to help the pro-life campaign.
“Facebook is facilitating this behavior — whether they like it or not,” Sheridan said. “The website won't get any traction without a Facebook page to promote it.”
“The view ads feature is the very first step in a series of steps to bring greater transparency to ads on Facebook, but we appreciate it doesn't address all of the concerns that people have,” a Facebook spokeswoman told VICE News, adding that is plans on adding the ability to see who has paid for a particular ad “later this year.”
But that will not happen in time for the May 25 referendum. The campaign leading up to the vote has been highly divisive, but based on the most recent polls, it is likely that it will pass with 63 percent in favor of repeal.
Good Counsel Network Ireland was previously exposed by the Times for claiming abortion causes breast cancer and turns women into child abusers. A page linked to Good Counsel Network, called Women’s Right to Know, had a Facebook ad deleted over the weekend that appeared to show a fetus in a lavatory.
Another account linked to Good Counsel Network, calling itself Adoration Stops Abortion, created a fake report designed to look like it came from Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ.
While Facebook did remove the ad, RTÉi criticized Facebook for not suspending the account that bought it.
The Facebook spokeswoman said that as it was not a fake account and the page has no previous policy violations “there were no grounds on which we would remove the page.”
While these ads may be misleading, they are not breaching Facebook’s rules, and therefore remain on the site. Facebook however is taking steps that make it hard for those seeking information to find out just how many times these ads have been viewed and shared.
Currently the number of Likes, shares and comments is greyed out when you click on the View Ads feature, but as Sheridan points out, it would be trivial for Facebook to shows these figures on the page as standard.
Facebook could not give a reason why it didn’t make these figures visible.
Facebook would also not divulge how much money it has been paid for referendum-related ads, but given the level of activity tracked by researchers and activists, there are clearly a lot of people looking to leverage Facebook’s reach ahead of the vote.
And yet, despite this, Ireland — like many other countries — is completely lacking when it comes to legislation and regulation in this area.
“There is a complete lack of regulation or legislation around social media advertising for political campaigns,” Dwyer said. “And that is something that needs to be addressed.”
Ireland’s information commissioner has refused to take an official position on the matter, while the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland says the problem is not within its remit. This week a spokesperson for the Referendum Commision told VICE News: “We don't have any role in monitoring that at all.”
So that leaves the government, but critics claim they are simply not doing enough.
“I think the government has had its head in the sand and does what it always does and kicked the can down the road,” Lawless said.
Cover image: Leslie Xia