As the referendum on May 25 to liberalise Ireland’s strict abortion laws approaches, Google and Facebook have intervened to restrict online advertising aimed at Irish voters. Facebook has moved against non-Irish advertisers, mostly from the US, posting on Irish social media. Google has gone further and banned all online ads relating to the referendum.

Although this may seem a neutral move, it is thought that this will benefit the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which bans abortion in most circumstances. The No campaign (against repeal), which has largely been shut out of the Irish press, has relied heavily on social media to organise.

Ailbhe Smyth, a leader of the pro-repeal campaign, commented that Google’s move “creates a level playing field between all sides, specifically in relation to YouTube and Google searches”. However, Laoise Ní Dhubhrosa, of London Irish United for Life, told the Catholic Herald: “This is a very worrying development. Our experience has been that traditional media in Ireland is extremely biased against the pro-life position; most of the Irish newspapers have an editorial stance in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. In that context, pro-life groups have to rely on new media, including online ads, to get their message out there. The referendum requires an open democratic debate, not one in which content is censored and shut down on dubious grounds.”

Despite enjoying the support of almost the entire Irish establishment, including most politicians, media and celebrities such as Bono and Liam Neeson, the Yes campaign has become jittery as its poll lead has narrowed during the campaign. Before the referendum was called, the Yes side outnumbered No in the polls by at least two to one, though a large proportion of voters said they had not yet decided which way to vote. The most recent poll had Yes at 45 per cent with No at 34 per cent.

Campaigners on both sides are also aware that, while Irish pollsters have a good track record in general elections, they are not very good at predicting referendum results. Whether because of a lack of popular enthusiasm for their proposals or because Irish voters tell pollsters what they want to hear, recent Irish governments have frequently lost votes that the polls said they were sure to win. So the result may be much closer than the polls suggest, and even if the restriction in online advertising only has a minor effect, that could be decisive.

A major background influence to the online ban has been the fallout from recent political events such as the Brexit vote and, more importantly, President Trump’s election. The unexpected Trump victory caused a breach in the alliance between the Democratic Party and Silicon Valley that was forged by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. A large part of the Democratic base, rather than accepting that they had an uninspiring candidate or a poorly organised campaign, blamed their defeat on “fake news” and in particular on Russian disinformation efforts. So far, though, the evidence of Russian trolls influencing voters to support Trump or Brexit has been very thin.

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