The Storyful Podcast: Unregulated Online Campaigning in the Irish Abortion Referendum
The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, recognising the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother, was passed by referendum in 1983 after a contentious campaign. While abortion had been illegal in Ireland since the mid-19th century, the amendment meant that any future legislation could only permit abortion in Ireland in limited circumstances, where the life of the mother was at risk.
The amendment has proven to be one of the most controversial legal measures in the history of the Irish state, and abortion has been frequently debated since. In a 1992 referendum, which followed the case of a 14-year-old girl pregnant after being raped, two further amendments were passed, allowing women the right to access information on abortion abroad, and the freedom to travel abroad for such a procedure.
In 2013, the Irish parliament passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, for the first time setting out the conditions under which a legal abortion could be performed in Ireland.
This month, on May 25, the Irish people will vote again on the issue of abortion. The question they’ll be asked is whether or not they agree to repeal the Eighth Amendment, allowing the government to legislate more broadly for abortion.
The campaigning has been as contentious and divisive as ever. But with one crucial difference – in the 80s and early 90s, there was no internet, no online campaigning, no Google ads, no Facebook pages.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and amid questions surrounding the role of social media in the Brexit and the US presidential votes, the Irish abortion referendum is serving as another important test case for the impact of social media on the democratic process. Online campaigning is a field that, for now, is outside the remit of regulation. Unlike with traditional media, there is no requirement for transparency, no accountability in terms of fundraising and advertising spend, none of the strict rules around accuracy and balance that govern coverage.
This lack of accountability and transparency has been much reported on in Irish and international media, eventually prompting Facebook and Google to take steps to curb advertising relating to the campaign. After these moves, the question remains: has the time for self-regulation of tech companies passed? And if so, how do democratic governments legislate for and oversee online campaigning, without restricting free speech? With the US midterm elections coming in November, should US legislators be watching closely to see what happens in Ireland?
We at Storyful have been following the online campaign closely as part of the news intelligence work we do here. Today, our podcast team look at the results of our work on this referendum, and discuss what comes next.
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