• Donal Horgan

Google Says Yes...?

Updated: May 28, 2018

What role did the mainstream media and social media play in the referendum on the Eight Amendment (25th May)?

The role of the media and social media in the referendum on the Eight Amendment (25thMay, 2018) will be parsed and analysed for some time to come. A particular feature of this campaign was the role played by social media and in particular the sudden change in advertising policy by tech giants Google and FaceBook during the election campaign.

On 8th May, well into the campaign and with less than two weeks to voting, Facebook announced that it would no longer be taking referendum related advertising from advertisers outside of Ireland; it would, however, continue to accept advertising from groups based in Ireland. On the following day, Google went further and announced that it was blocking all referendum-related advertising from all groups including those based in Ireland. The company explained its action in a short statement saying: “Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment."

However, questions remain about the arbitrary and somewhat sweeping nature of both the Google and Facebook decisions especially since they came in the middle of a referendum campaign during which both companies had been accepting advertising. For a company that has made its name (and fortune) from providing information to the masses, Google was extremely reluctant to elaborate on the reasons behind its decision merely talking in general terms about 'protecting the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence'.

Google's efforts at projecting itself as some benign protector of the democratic process rings a little hollow considering that it was widely reported that the Yes campaign had been informed of the decision the day before the decision was announced publicly. The general consensus was that given the No campaign's distrust of the mainstream media, considerable resources were devoted to its social media campaigns. Given that the ban was widely welcomed by the Yes campaign, it is reasonable to assume that the perception was that such a ban would hinder one side more than the other.

The role of large multinationals such as Facebook and Google in election campaigns raises important questions about the integrity of the democratic process. Ireland's GDP is about $300 bn - considerably less than the worth of either Facebook at $400 bn or Google estimated at over $500 bn.

Do multinational giants like Google and Facebook have corporate views about which side should win elections and referendums? They're not saying so publicly but if they do, the awkward truth may well be that it is these same corporate giants who present the greatest threat to 'protecting the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence'.

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