What Happens Online: Boosting Awareness and Accountability

Elizabeth Carolan, Founder, Transparent Referendum Initiative

Ireland’s 2018 referendum shows that when specific digital threats to democracy are known, concrete action can be taken to expose and limit its effects. Building long-term resilience to digital threats will rely on identifying threats early — ideally before they manifest during live contests. The European Commission can help enable this by mandating that tech companies be more open about the tools and technology they are developing, and more responsive when things go wrong. 
The issues with digital political advertising — targeted content on social media, sometimes misleading, that is difficult to scrutinise and trace and can be purchased anywhere in the world — have been highlighted as significant factors in retrospective analysis of electoral campaigns in the UK, US and other countries.

Knowing this, and that Ireland was about to hold a referendum on abortion, my civil society project — the Transparent Referendum Initiative — built an open database of referendum-related Facebook ads which journalists could fact-check and source trace. We highlighted behaviour online that otherwise would have gone unscrutinised, and that would not have been allowed offline.

For example Ireland’s electoral law says political posters must have labels stating who has paid, so groups behind them can be identified and asked about their claims. But online, hundreds of the ads we found were placed by unregistered or untraceable groups, some containing disinformation. Likewise Irish law bans overseas donations to campaigners, but during this referendum we found overseas groups purchasing Facebook ads directly targeting Irish voters.

Pressure from these revelations prompted Facebook and Google to limit advertising during the campaign. Additionally, our Government has since committed to updating our electoral laws, and has added the issue to our national risk assessment.

This specific issue is slowly being addressed as tech firms are starting to fix their political ad policies and products, and governments debate new rules. This has been slow, as companies in particular can be blind to the unintended consequences of the technology they build.

But new issues are emerging all the time — for example the spread of disinformation on closed messaging networks seen recently in India — and will continue to emerge as connectivity, algorithms and data holdings develop at exponential rates.

Building resilience to these threats will take efforts by a range of actors; governments will need to strengthen the independent institutions that oversee our democracies so they can respond more quickly. Civil society and the media will need to be prepared to be at the forefront of investigating risks and bringing problems to public attention.

But tech companies will also need to make major changes, to become more open and responsive; to start sharing information on tools and technology so risks can be identified early; and to be available to and responsive to those concerns emerging in different countries. The European Commission should explore ways to ensure that these companies take these steps, and are held accountable if they fail to do so.