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Posters urge people to vote in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, a subsection that effectively outlaws abortion in most cases, in Dublin on May 12, 2018.ARTUR WIDAK/Getty Images

Voters in Ireland will cast ballots in a historic referendum on May 25 on whether to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on abortion. But the vote also offers a different political test: for social-media companies still struggling with how to protect their technology from being manipulated to undermine democratic elections.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Facebook announced it would ban political advertising around the referendum from groups based outside of Ireland. Google followed suit a day later, announcing a total ban on any referendum ads across its many products, including YouTube.

Groups that support repealing Ireland’s strict abortion laws cheered the changes, while anti-abortion organizations have accused Google and Facebook of censorship. But others say the referendum has exposed the difficulty that social-media companies face as they try to balance promoting free speech with protecting their platforms from abuse in the absence of clear regulations governing online political advertising.

“It certainly feels like we are in the middle of a live test case,” said Craig Dwyer, co-founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative, an Irish, volunteer-run group that has analyzed nearly 900 Facebook ads on the referendum to call attention to gaps in the country’s election-advertising laws. “This referendum campaign is setting a precedent for the likes of Facebook and Google. They’ve made decisions now on how their platforms are used for elections and referendum campaigns, which will be relevant to countries across the globe.”

Voters will decide on May 25 whether to overturn Ireland’s strict laws on abortion, known as the eighth amendment, which prohibits abortions except in life-threatening cases. If Ireland votes in favour of repealing the ban, the government has pledged that it will introduce new laws to limit abortions to pregnancies earlier than 12 weeks, except in rare circumstances.

Public opinion polls, which initially showed strong support for repealing the law, have tightened in recent weeks. The referendum has also attracted considerable attention from religious groups in other countries, sparking fears that foreign organizations may be looking to influence the outcome.

Earlier this year, Mr. Dwyer’s group began collecting data on paid referendum ads, taken from Irish Facebook users who had agreed to install an ad-tracking app called, built by developers for the 2017 British general elections. Users also sent the group screenshots of ads that had been running on YouTube.

They amassed a database of nearly 900 ads from more than 200 different organizations. While most were from official campaigns and Irish political parties, about 13 per cent came from foreign organizations, including those based in the United States, Canada and Hungary, according to an analysis of the data released on Friday.

Another 9 per cent came from Facebook pages that were anonymous, making it unclear who actually paid for the ad.

Several dozen were from groups purporting to be offering unbiased information about the referendum for undecided voters, but seemed to actually steer people toward one side of the debate. Some analysts worried those campaigns appeared designed to collect data on undecided Facebook users to target them for future ads.

Both Google and Facebook said they acted to restrict referendum advertising as part of global election integrity efforts launched in the wake of scandals involving political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica and Russian political interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But they offered no details about the kind of activity that prompted them to make changes in the final weeks leading up to the referendum.

However, many of the advertisements that ran online – including those from foreign organizations and high-quality video campaigns targeting large numbers of voters – would have been illegal under Irish election law if they had been published by traditional media instead of on the internet, Mr. Dwyer said. Ireland bans all political ads on television and radio and prohibits foreign donations to election campaigns.

When Mr. Dwyer spoke with Facebook employees earlier in the year about the upcoming referendum, they indicated they were focused mainly on getting new political ad transparency tools ready for the U.S. midterm elections in November. “They were talking about the requirement of development hours and how they couldn’t divert attention away from getting them in place for the U.S. midterms,” he said.

Several analysts said they believed the social-media companies realized late in the campaign that they didn’t want to be caught in the middle of a sensitive vote that has attracted global attention, and worried they would inevitably be blamed for outcome.

“The world is watching,” said Barry O’Sullivan, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at University College Cork. While researchers don’t yet know how much platforms such as Facebook and Google actually influence voters, the advertising bans may signal that the companies are worried about exactly that. “Maybe this is the evidence that social media can have a significant impact on the outcome of elections,” he told RTE, the Irish national broadcaster.

The referendum has sparked a renewed discussion about Ireland’s political-advertising laws, which were written long before the rise of the internet. The Irish government has launched an interdepartmental group to study the risks that online advertising poses to democracy. Several politicians have called for regulatory updates to reflect the modern reality of online political campaigns, similar to efforts underway in Canada and the United States.

“Democracy is under attack. It’s under attack in Ireland, it’s under attack in the Western world and further afield and it’s really important that we defend ourselves,” said James Lawless, a politician with the opposition Fianna Fail, who introduced a bill requiring online companies reveal the identity of those paying to run political ads.

Facebook’s move to restrict foreign ads was a step in the right direction, while Google likely went “too far” with its complete ban, Mr. Lawless said. However, both cases illustrate that governments “shouldn’t be leaving it to global companies to decide what our electoral laws are to be about.”​

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