Google And Facebook Restrict Speech About Ireland’s Abortion Referendum

Google And Facebook Restrict Speech About Ireland’s Abortion Referendum

Facebook and Google are both playing politics, but not the same politics, regarding online advertising related to Ireland’s upcoming referendum on abortion’s legality.
Warren Henry
By

In a 1983 referendum, Ireland overwhelmingly voted to enact the Eighth Amendment to its constitution, which protects the lives of the unborn: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

This month, there will be another vote on whether to repeal the amendment. Global tech giants Facebook and Google have been drawn into the campaign, with different approaches reflecting possibly different politics.

Facebook has chosen to reject foreign advertisements related to the referendum, which had been mostly placed by American pro-life groups. Ireland has no legal ban on such advertising. The reaction on the Emerald Isle echoed the sort of discussion Americans are having about Russian trolls attempting to influence our 2016 election.

Ireland’s pro-choice “Yes” faction welcomed the decision, claiming the vote could have been swayed by a last-minute deluge of foreign ads. But a leader of the pro-life “No” faction also welcomed the decision, arguing it would end a “relentless media focus on about 0.2% of ads bought by overseas groups on both sides.”

The nervousness of the “Yes” faction is understandable. They currently lead in the most recent public opinion poll, but it is a narrow lead with a large undecided bloc.

It is a less-than-inspiring position for “Yes,” when considering the backdrop for the referendum. Repeal is backed by not only the government, but also by most of the media class and a number of influential non-governmental organizations (including Amnesty Ireland, which ironically is refusing to return foreign funding from the Open Society Foundation).

Facebook’s decision is necessarily political. It seems unlikely its executives are losing much sleep over indirectly boosting the pro-choice faction at the margin. Nevertheless, the similarity to the Russian issue suggests larger political considerations are on Mark Zuckerberg’s mind.

The company is necessarily sensitive to charges it has been lax in policing attempts by one country to influence the nominally domestic politics of another. Indeed, Facebook has come under fire for failing to adequately police messages in Myanmar. Zuck has already had to testify before Congress on the matter; he might prefer to avoid turning it into a world tour.

Granted, it’s curious that whenever Facebook attempts reforms to its presentation of news or advertisements, it generally seems to disadvantage positions opposed to American progressives. But at least it can be said that on election advertising, it has additional reasons to be seen as extricating itself.

On the other hand, Google—which has incurred far less grief on this front—decided on the far broader approach of refusing all advertising related to the referendum, including on YouTube. Unlike the Facebook decision, the pro-life faction is calling Google’s choice “scandalous” and “an attempt to rig the referendum.”

A joint statement from the three major “No” groups declares: “It is about concerns the No side will win. It is very clear that the Government, much of the establishment media and corporate Ireland have determined that anything that needs to secure a Yes vote must be done. Online was the only platform available to the No campaign to speak to voters directly. That platform is now being undermined, in order to prevent the public from hearing the message of one side.”

A report from the Irish Times seems to corroborate those concerns: “Several sources familiar with the internet companies said they believed that Google and Facebook had become alarmed in recent days at the prospect of the referendum being defeated and that they would be blamed by Yes campaigners and some elements of the media for their failure to adequately control or regulate advertising from the No side.”

If the debate surrounding these decisions mirrors the Russia debate in America, the pressures these companies feel also look like a different American debate about the problems that arise when big business decides to get involved in politics.

Facebook and Google are both playing politics, but not the same politics. Facebook may be sympathetic to the pro-choice position, but its response was targeted in scope to its current political headaches. In contrast, Google’s ham-fisted approach reflects a company that is being run like the faculty lounge at a college fully committed to the intersectional politics of the New New Left. Google will spin its decision as even-handed, which will only add an insult of everyone’s intelligence to the injury.

Moreover, Google’s approach makes them the bigger target. A company that views everything as an unchecked opportunity for politics will find itself making political enemies worldwide, but particularly at home.

Does that mean these tech giants might find themselves under further government scrutiny? So far, demands for regulation have not gone beyond the occasional op-ed in conservative media, most likely due to the perception that dominant companies such as these ultimately work the process to their benefit. But with this duo so overwhelmingly dominant in online advertising, they could be inviting an antitrust investigation of that sector of their businesses.

Warren Henry is the nom de plume of an attorney practicing in the State of Illinois.

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