In the run-up to Ireland’s abortion referendum, amid heated campaigns that exposed some of the country’s deepest divides, a group of 20 journalists from a wide range of Irish media gathered in a small office in Dublin.
They were one part of a collective, informal, and successful effort, led by journalists and activists, to protect the country from the barrage of misinformation and propaganda online that had poisoned events in other countries, including the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, reports Foreign Policy (source).
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“An array of international groups, both anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights, saw the island, with just 4.7 million people, as the front line of a wider ideological battleground. In particular, right-wing anti-abortion groups in the United States were keen to maintain what they saw as one of the last bastions against abortion.
One of the main vehicles for foreign groups was Facebook ads that microtargeted Irish voters. In response, citizen volunteers established the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI) to catalog the ads targeting voters. The data was crowdsourced from a group of 600 volunteers, who added a customized extension to the Google Chrome browser to collect the Facebook ads targeted at them.
The Dublin meeting focused on tackling this huge dataset. The journalists collaborated with the Irish social media group Storyful in order to turn the information processed by TRI into a meaningful narrative.
This produced a stream of news reports on foreign or anonymous groups targeting ads at Irish voters, fact checks of the misinformation being spread, and reflections on the nature of each campaign. These all contributed to a healthy skepticism among Irish voters online.
The barrage of stories moved Facebook to respond. Two weeks before the vote, the company announced that it would no longer allow referendum-related ads from groups based outside Ireland. Google went a step further one day after Facebook’s announcement, banning all referendum-related services through Google AdWords. This helped quell growing frustration with the barrage of suspicious referendum-related ads.
But the data in the TRI database deserves a closer analysis than it has yet received. It offers suggestions for how future elections or events might be distorted by social media — and how such distortions can best be combated. Niamh Kirk, a journalism and digital media researcher at Dublin City University, carried out an analysis of the groups that had been buying ads before this ban and found that the role played by foreign groups was small but significant. Nine percent of ads were from groups based outside of Ireland.
Twenty-eight ads in the TRI database (3 percent overall) were from groups based in the United States, one was from Canada, three were from France, and the origin of 39 (4 percent overall) was unclear.”