This article is by LSE MSc student Jack Marks
Ireland has largely been spared the “Fake News” epidemic that wreaks havoc in its counterparts to its East and West. The upcoming Abortion referendum has changed that.
In seven weeks time, Ireland goes to the polls in a referendum to legalise abortion. The Irish Constitution was amended in 1983 by popular referendum to guarantee that the “life of the unborn” held “equal right to life of the mother”. This essentially prohibits abortion in Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality, though women can travel abroad for abortions in less restrictive jurisdictions, and about a dozen a day do so. The incumbent Fine Gael party have said that a vote to repeal the 8th amendment will be followed by legislation allowing for abortion on demand up to 12 weeks into the pregnancy. Up until this election, Ireland had shown a rather remarkable lack of the “Fake News” compared to most other polities over the world. But this is has now changed.
Irish Politics: Extraordinary in its Ordinariness
One reason for the lack of “Fake News” in Ireland is that compared to most other Western countries, Irish politics has maintained a shared reality. Ireland’s mainstream political debates haven’t become debates over reality itself as they have in the US, and to a lesser extent the UK. During the Republican Primary debates in 2015, I remember marvelling at how candidates could make easily refutable claims about the US economy, claiming unemployment was out of control under Obama or that the deficit was the worst it had ever been. Though the US economy wasn’t exactly its rosiest under Obama – wage stagnation and underemployment were, and still are, serious problems – it was clear that the Republican primaries were taking place in a different factual universe to that of the Bureau of Labour Statistics or the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Similar tensions emerged during the UK’s Brexit referendum where factual misrepresentations were common from pro-Brexit campaigners and went largely unchallenged by pro-Brexit press.
In comparison, Ireland’s political debates have remained comparatively civil and factual. The 2016 General Election took place against the backdrop of a country that was recovering from an economic crisis quicker than had been expected, but with issues such as rising homelessness, diminished social service provision, and continued stagnation outside of the Greater Dublin Area blemishing the recovery. The dominant incumbent party, Fine Gael, ran on the slogan “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going”, while their chief rivals, Fianna Fáil, ran on the slogan “An Ireland for All”. Neither side argued against the basic facts that the economy was improving. The debate boiled-down to whether the gains of the recovery could be better distributed. Economic truths were accepted by all the major Irish parties.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why this is the case. The presence of a large Public Service Broadcaster may be a factor. Having RTÉ – Ireland’s equivalent to BBC – as a dominant media player, with similar duties of balance and fairness, may help to ground public discourse in facts in a way that doesn’t happen in the US where no robustly-funded PBS exists. Perhaps with Ireland’s much smaller media market it is easier for news outlets to call-out the factual misrepresentations of other outlets and prevent the emergence of a hyper-partisan press. Or perhaps it is the result of the quirk of the two largest Irish parties having relatively little ideological distance between them. People often jest that the largest difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is where they stood on an issue which hasn’t existed for almost a century (both parties emerge over disagreement on whether or not to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. This Treaty established substantial, though incomplete, independence from Britain following the Irish War of Independence). As there is less ideological distance between the two major contenders, it becomes less imperative for either party to create an alternate factual reality from one-another compared to where these ideological distances are more pronounced. Whatever its cause, Irish political debate has remained more grounded in a shared reality than its counterparts to the East and West, which makes it more difficult to spread Fake News which counters this shared reality.
Ireland Doesn’t Trouble the World
Another reason for Ireland’s dearth of “Fake News” is a near total lack of international interest. As far as profit-seeking “Fake News” goes, such as the widely reported Macedonian “Fake News” farms, Ireland’s population of 4.8 million just can’t generate the profits which make “Fake News” publication a viable source of income, as it can be in the media markets of the UK (14 times larger) or the US (68 times larger). As for international interest, Ireland lacks any of the International clout, potential impact, or interest from malevolent governments to warrant a disinformation campaign. Ireland has a minimal effect on international politics. It is not, nor has it ever really been, the site of a battleground between competing global powers or ideologies, and it lacks any historical, cultural, or geographical proximity to Russia that would make it of any interest for a state-led disinformation campaign. In short, there has rarely been much reason for a larger country or ideological movement to take much interest in Irish politics.
For these reasons, Ireland has been significantly less affected by the “Fake News” epidemic which has plagued most the rest of the developed world. However, the abortion referendum offers new challenges.
An Emotional Debate, Not a Factual One
Though Irish politics has remained more resilient to the pull of emotion over facts in political debates, the contentious issue of abortion threatens to break this and put emotions at the centre of the debate. The abortion debate cuts to the centre of one of the most fundamental and unanswerable questions in science, philosophy, and theology: when does human life begin?
When challenged to defend Donald Trump’s patently false assertions, Scott Adams – the Dilbert comic writer turned Trump enthusiast – defended the falsehoods as holding an “emotional truth”. The implication being that “factual truth” and “emotional truth” are two different things. So when Trump massively inflates the number of immigrants or refugees coming to America, though it is not a factual truth, it speaks to an “emotional truth” of many citizens that America is taking in too many immigrants and refugees.
It is hard to to conceive of a more emotionally driven – and by extension, less factually driven – debate than that of abortion. One is either of the opinion that abortion access liberates women from a form of biological slavery, or that it amounts to the literal murder of unborn children. In such a climate emotional truth often trumps factual truth, the result being that any factual misrepresentation can be justified by the disseminator, and accepted by the reader, based on the “emotional truth” of the argument. For example, a recent post from the group Pro-Life Ireland claimed that women who have had an abortion are six times more likely to commit suicide. No proof of this has been offered, but despite its factual flaws, it stands as an emotional truth for those who believe the unborn foetus is akin to a child. Surely the willful murder of a child – which abortion essentially in the opinion of these groups – puts massive psychological strain on the murderous mothers and must make them massively depressed and even suicidal.
A Debate Larger Than the Country Itself
This referendum makes Ireland a battleground in a global fight over abortion. International interest groups are weighing in, buying up ad space on social media. The Transparent Referendum Initiative has catalogued a number of targeted Facebook ads by groups not officially affiliated with the official Save the Eighth referendum campaign, both within and outside Ireland. Though this initiative might get close to cataloguing all of the ads targeting Irish voters in this referendum, due to Facebook’s lack of transparency, it won’t be able to draw any conclusions as to the amount of people a post or ad reaches, factual or otherwise.
Ireland has stepped into a debate larger than itself. With global interest groups willing to fight against abortion liberalisation on any front, Ireland has invited these interest groups to fight an information war on its soil. As this is quite literally a matter of life and death as far as pro-life groups are concerned, the ends justify the means and any misrepresentation, cherry-picked fact, or outright lie is justified by what’s at stake.
Legal Gaps and Failings
The upcoming referendum also threatens to expose a dual-threat of legislative gaps in Irish electoral regulation. In a mirror of the Brexit election, Irish electoral regulations on campaign spending are less effective for referendum campaigns. Whereas for parliamentary elections it is easier to cap donations and spending for individual parties and to cap national and local spending in a coherent manner, referendums provide unique challenges. Unlike parliamentary elections, with their clear delineations of political parties and campaign groups, the situation becomes much fuzzier during a referendum campaign. Groups which have not previously engaged in direct political advocacy suddenly emerge as campaigners for one side or another, operating parallel campaigns to the official, state-regulated campaigns for either side. Even if the official campaigns are forthright in their efforts to genuinely inform and persuade with fact, their honesty will have minimal effects on parallel campaign groups.
Compounding this is a failure by the Irish or EU government to introduce new regulation to deal with online campaigning. Despite the dramatic increase in the importance of online campaigning in election campaigns, Ireland has been as slow as anywhere else to apply fitting regulation on spending and fact-checking on campaigning through social media platforms. Instead, online campaigning remains almost completely unregulated. Factual misrepresentations that would see a poster removed or a television ad pulled and the responsible campaign penalised by the Electoral Commission can be circulated on Facebook or Twitter, with the only check being the platforms’ Terms of Service. Similarly, spending by campaign groups through traditional media channels is limited for national campaign groups and virtually forbidden for international campaign groups. In stark comparison, on Facebook and Twitter any international person or organisation is free to spend as much money they want to target Irish voters with messages advocating one-side or another. In short, there is essentially no legal protection from the waves of disinformation that are bombarding Irish voters online.
The combination of the emotional pull of this issue, the international interest it has received, and the failure to put in place stringent electoral regulations to mitigate against false information have damned this campaign to influence by disinformation. It demonstrates the urgent need for better regulation of online information channels, particularly social media channels, to curtail online disinformation, foreign influence in elections, and campaign overspending. However, even if this does happen at the National or the European level, it may happen too late for Ireland’s slide into the murky world of “Fake News”, “echo chambers” and “Alternative-Facts”.