Below is the text of the speech I gave at the 2018 Re:Publica Media Convention in Berlin, on May3rd 2018. It was 3 weeks before the referendum and I was giving an outline of what we have found in the Transparent Referendum Initiative project, and what it meant for policy discussion.
I’m here today to talk about a live example of a digital threat to democracy that is happening right now Ireland.
In 3 weeks we will have a referendum on whether to maintain or remove the near total ban on abortion — it is a vote that is highly emotive, contentious, and its of global interest and symbolic relevance to people inside and outside of the country. …
The way we ensure referendums are fair is out of date. Most of us get our information online; a domain “wholly unregulated” in electoral terms. History suggests the law will eventually try to catch up; a risky prospect that may focus on the impossible task of enforcing “balance”. A better focus is on the more pressing problem of ephemeral and untraceable political ads.
The referendum on the 8th Amendment offers a testing ground for using transparency to improve the online environment for debate, and to set a template for future regulation based around transparency and an empowered, permanent Election Commission.
We take regulating referendums seriously in this country. …
Brace yourself; the referendum is coming. You, me, and the rest of Ireland are about to be bombarded by facts, rumours, misinformation, personal stories, personal attacks, photos and diagrams about abortion.
Irish people, in my experience, take a serious and reflective approach to our referendums (ahem, Britain). We want to read about what is at stake, and will seek out voices we trust to help guide our thinking.
Yet information also seeks us out; leaflets land on our doormats, and emotive posts — targeted to us with a scary precision — appear on our Facebook feeds.
There are a three issues to consider…