Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) has rolled out new tools to prevent foreign agents from meddling in a nation’s elections ahead of an important vote soon to be occurring in Ireland. Its aim is to block political advertising from groups based outside the country and to increase the transparency of political campaigning on its platform. While limited to Ireland at the moment, Facebook has said similar tools will eventually be rolled out in other countries.
The contentious Irish referendum scheduled for May 25 will give voters the first opportunity in 35 years to repeal a constitutional amendment that has long divided the once deeply Catholic nation. Under the eighth amendment abortion is illegal in Ireland unless there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. Repealing the amendment would enable laws allowing abortion of pregnancies up to 12 weeks.
The vote is expected to be tight, sparking concerns that foreign groups will try to influence the debate through social media. While Irish electoral law bans political donations from non-Irish citizens or residents, online advertising was not part of the debate when the law was written. Facebook’s advertising system has become a favorite tool of those looking to influence elections because it is easy to target narrow segments of voters and much of it is automated.
Facebook faced a wave of criticism for election interference by Russian-based groups during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States. During the 2016 campaign, the company disclosed that it sold more than $100,000 worth of political ads to Russian-linked accounts. Since then, the company has altered its News Feed algorithm to decrease the emphasis on political news. The company has also hired thousands of moderators to detect fake news and extremist content.
For the referendum in Ireland, the company is changing its advertising policies, including allowing only authorized groups to buy political ads. It also recently introduced a tool so users can see all the ads a group is posting on the social network. Facebook said in a blog post, “Our company approach is to build tools to increase transparency around political advertising so that people know who is paying for the ads they are seeing, and to ensure any organization running a political ad is located in that country.”
Facebook said that groups working on both sides of the Irish referendum would be able to flag advertisements suspected of coming from foreign organizations. The company also said it would use artificial intelligence technology to spot potentially problematic material. The advertisements will then be investigated by the social media platform and removed if found to be violating its policies.