In sports, it’s widely agreed upon that the best umpires are the ones you barely notice.
In social media, the umpires have stolen the headlines.
On May 25, Ireland will hold a referendum to decide whether to repeal the eighth amendment in the Irish constitution, an amendment that holds the life of the unborn to be equal to that of the mother, all but implementing a complete ban on abortion throughout the country and giving Ireland some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. It would be replaced by a law allowing abortion up to 12 weeks. The question has spawned a pro-life movement to save the 8th.
The world is not only watching this vote, it’s sending money to influence it, especially interested parties on both sides of the abortion debate in the United States.
Save the 8th campaign focuses on social media
If you’re looking to influence a vote in Ireland, social media is your only option because political ads are banned from TV and radio. In response, Google has banned all online advertising connected to the referendum and Facebook is limiting ad sales to organizations based in Ireland.
The worries over external funding, especially the possibility of large sums of money coming from the U.S., are the result of news that firms who played a part in Trump and Brexit’s online campaigns have been hired to work with Save the 8th (the pro-life group in Ireland). On the pro-abortion side, the money has already been flowing into Ireland. Earlier this year, donations from billionaire George Soros had to be returned as they were deemed unlawful outside influence.
The restrictions come just days before the vote, causing pro-life groups to claim the goalposts are being moved in the middle of the game.
At a press conference of a group of No campaigners on Wednesday, pro-life spokespeople accused the government, the media and the Yes side of orchestrating the Google ban to try to rig the referendum in favor of a Yes vote.
The No side said that it had planned significant spending through Google and YouTube in the coming weeks and that the ban was “preventing campaigns that have done nothing illegal from campaigning in a perfectly legal matter.”
Frontpage.org accused Facebook of outright bias. The social media giant rejected several articles from being distributed on their platform that had been aggregated by Frontpage.org and sourced from Irish media sources regarding the referendum. This happened after Facebook had originally approved the distribution of the article several days before.
The Yes campaign is in the lead, but polls have been tightening recently, and the 20 percent of Irish voters who say they are still undecided are thought to hold the key to the referendum result.
Google and Facebook point to analysis of online posts by the social media news agency Storyful to support their restrictions. It found that only a third of advertisements urging a No vote—which would preserve the strict abortion law—came from Facebook pages managed solely in Ireland. In contrast, four-fifths of posts urging repeal of the amendment came from pages managed solely in Ireland.
Banning or limiting ads now would prevent a flurry of foreign interests buying ads to influence swing voters in the final days before the referendum.
And history suggests that might happen. Pro-life groups claim that pro-abortion groups in Ireland have received sizable donations from Atlantic Philanthropies, a private foundation backed by Irish-American billionaire Chuck Feeney. Meanwhile, pro-life groups in the U.S. have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to like-minded allies in Ireland.
Save the 8th campaign says social media is silencing Irish voices
But here’s the irony that many Irish pundits are pointing out—Google and Facebook are foreign players that are influencing the vote by silencing Irish voices.
Frontpage.org says Facebook has been blocking original opinion pieces from reputed Irish journalists regarding their own personal views on the referendum. Facebook also suspended distribution of a letter signed by over 100 legal professionals regarding their position on the referendum. This was reported as news in several Irish papers, but the original letter had not been published in its totality before Frontpage.org decided to allow its readers to review the unedited thoughts of these professionals on a historic issue.
In an opinion piece on its site Frontpage writes, “It is also our view that Facebook should not be in the business of banning Irish lawyers, Irish journalists and Irish news from being shared with its citizens on its platform.”
Ed Morrissey, a conservative American blogger, claims, “At the very least, it would appear that the intervention from both Facebook and Google is not viewpoint-neutral and is intended to produce a particular result in the referendum.”
Many could see that as a political statement given his views on the topic, but his conclusion appears both unbiased and dead-on:
“It again reminds us that concentrated economic power eventually gets used as political power and that it can corrupt even those processes and policies intended as reforms, especially when combined as they appear to be in this case.”