After the shock results of Brexit and Trump, historian Niall Ferguson made a bold prediction. “Make no mistake: 2016 will never happen again,” he wrote. Silicon Valley was blamed by the center Left for their electoral misfortunes. These sites allowed the spread of fake news, or were vulnerable to foreign manipulation, liberals argued. And the giant companies had a compelling reason to respond to these complaints. First, to retain the loyalty of young customers. Second, to ward off the prospect of further regulation.
Their response was not to actually do anything about Russian hackers but to begin disempowering the populist and conservative voices who used their platforms. Soon conservative YouTubers watched helplessly as Google demonetized their videos. Facebook hired a phalanx of fact-checkers from liberal media outlets to control the flow of viral news.
And now it seems the big tech companies have decided to draw a line around Ireland, where many of them have their European headquarters and find a suitable tax shelter for their profits. Ireland has scheduled a referendum for May 25 on repealing the Eighth Amendment of their constitution, which forbids abortion. The side urging repeal and the legalization of abortion has held a significant lead in polling during the runup, but one that has been shrinking recently.
In recent weeks, one of Ireland’s leading pro-abortion columnists began baiting the tech companies, saying that the pro-life campaign “will be modelled on those that helped both Donald Trump and Brexit to victory” and that it will deploy “fake news” across social media. This column and many other commentaries amounted to a warning: If the Irish referendum was won by conservatives, the tech companies would get the blame.
Silicon Valley’s giants have responded.
This morning Facebook and Google announced policies that restrict advertising on the Eighth Amendment. First Facebook announced that it was taking action against foreign-based entities, mostly in the U.S., that had placed pro-life ads across Irish social media. The head of the Save the Eighth campaign, John McGuirk, said that this move did not affect their strategy “and should put an end to relentless media focus on about 0.2% of ads bought by overseas groups on both sides.”
The move by Facebook to no longer accept foreign advertisements relating to the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment will come as welcome news to some on the Yes side of the campaign.
There has been rising concern among some pro-repeal groups and supporters that the referendum could be swayed in its decisive weeks towards a No vote by an avalanche of online ads.
Facebook’s move is likely to be directly related to this fear: and a fear that if the referendum were defeated, the company would face questions about its role in influencing votes, as it has in the US and UK.
In the past fortnight, there has been a rising sense of pessimism in some repeal quarters that the campaign was slipping away from them. Yesterday, the transparency campaigner Gavin Sheridan tweeted that it was now his view that the No side would win the campaign because its online spending was dwarfing that of the Yes campaign.
Facebook’s action seems rash in light of the fact that the only campaign that seemed to have a significant problem with foreign funding was the pro-choice one at Amnesty Ireland, which had been ordered by Ireland’s Standards in Public Office Commission to return illegal donations from the George Soros–funded Open Society Foundation, and then flatly refused to do so.
But Google decided to go one step further and announced a blanket ban on all advertisements, foreign or domestic, on the issue of the referendum. Google’s decision looks neutral on the surface. But, the Repeal side already has overwhelming support in traditional broadcast and print media in Ireland, while the less well-funded campaigns to retain the Eighth Amendment rely on social media. Certainly the reactions of the two leading campaign groups could not be more different.
If they feel the need to appease center-left critics by preemptively disarming Irish pro-lifers, whom will they seek to silence, and throttle, next?
Ailbhe Smyth, the co-director of the main campaign for repealing the Eighth and legalizing abortion, praised the decision by Google, saying that it “creates a level playing field between all sides, specifically in relation to YouTube and Google searches.” McGuirk at Save the Eighth immediately held a press conference, saying that Google’s policy amounted to an attempt to rig the referendum.
One of the hidden dynamics of the controversy over social media and elections is that in the years since Barack Obama first made very effective use of social media, the average age of a Facebook user has steadily climbed. Facebook is now a product used by older people, while the young have flocked to younger products, like Snapchat. The political impact of older social-media companies was always going to reflect a more traditional constituency.
These decisions by Silicon Valley are extremely serious for all conservative activists and publishers who have been investing in using its products for years. If they feel the need to appease center-left critics by preemptively disarming Irish pro-lifers, whom will they seek to silence, and throttle, next?