A Global Test Case For Democracy?

So, our tiny little isle has been thrust into the global limelight again. This time it is not because of our weather-beaten news reporters, our big day in March or our sports fans. This time we have become the epicentre for the future of democracy.  Or that’s how some would have us think about it.

What I’m referring to is Google’s unprecedented decision to ban all Eight Amendment referendum ads, on both sides, for the remainder of the election campaign. Facebook took a similar step by monitoring and refusing foreign backed campaigns, but Google’s move has had the most impact and column inches. 

Looking at a simple search of this news story, it’s not just local publishers covering the story, and this is what leads us to realise  that something much bigger is unfolding. Not only are the big international news corporations covering this story – The Guardian, BBC, Reuters, Forbes, to name a few; international tech sites such as Engadget and CNet have run with this story and this is key . When else would the tech journals of the world cover a referendum in Ireland?  

The precedent set here is huge, and it implies a number of things:

  1. There is an unspoken acceptance that the Google and Facebook platforms are indeed now at a scale that they can influence national elections and democracies. It certainly counters Mark Zuckerberg’s 2016 assertion that it was a “crazy idea” that Facebook could have influenced the US election.
  2. It has shown the vast complexity within which international advertising organisations act and their challenges in adhering to local laws and policies. It emphasises the need for human oversight when it comes to advertising around such sensitive issues.
  3. There will be a massive focus on this Irish referendum for learnings with the upcoming US mid-term elections in November 2018.   

We may argue that the media plays a vital role as a provider of information, but what happens when those channels are exploited?  Whether we like it or not global media players are finally taking an interest in how influential their platforms (and messages they carry) are in local democratic decision-making. This is not about choosing one side or the other, or in this case neither side, but control of misinformation; after all an uneducated or misinformed vote can be as damaging as no vote at all.

Ireland’s Eighth Amendment Referendum is historic not just for the residents of this country, but for residents of all countries where democratic elections take place.