Could Google's ban on ads rig Ireland’s abortion vote?

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Internet giant Google has decided to bar all ads related to a fast-approaching referendum on legalizing abortion in Ireland. The decision drew much fire from pro-life critics, and some observers say the move unquestionably hurt efforts to preserve the Eighth Amendment, Ireland's constitutional recognition of the unborn's right to life.

"It is a blow to the 'No' side, which had planned an intensification of an already heavy online advertising campaign in the closing weeks of the campaign before polling day on May 25," Pat Leahy, politics editor of the Irish Times, said in a May 10 analysis.

"Since last year its strategists had planned a wave of late online advertising targeting undecided and soft 'Yes' voters."

The move "deprives anti-abortion campaigners of a key element of their strategy for the final two weeks of the campaign," he said.

The company characterized the move as part of "election integrity efforts." All Google advertising platforms, including AdWords and YouTube, are affected by the decision, which took effect May 10.

For the three leading pro-life groups who back the Eighth Amendment, Google's decision was "an attempt to rig the referendum."

"It is very clear that the Government, much of the establishment media, and corporate Ireland have determined that anything that needs to be done to secure a 'Yes' vote must be done," the Pro-Life Campaign, Save the 8th and the Iona Institute said in a joint May 9 statement.

"In this case, it means preventing campaigns that have done nothing illegal from campaigning in a perfectly legal manner."

The groups said mainstream media is dominated by pro-repeal voices and online media is their only platform to speak directly to voters on a large scale.

"That platform is now being undermined, in order to prevent the public from hearing the message of one side," they said.

The referendum seeks to modify the Republic of Ireland's constitution, which recognizes the equal right to life of both a mother and her unborn baby.

Polls initially suggested strong support for repeal, but the gap had been narrowing significantly in recent weeks.

The pro-repeal Together for Yes campaign on May 8 said Google's decision will "ensure a level playing field between both sides."

Irish government head Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who backs legal abortion, welcomed the move from Google.

Maria Steen of the Iona Institute, however, said Google's decision was "an attack on the integrity of the referendum" and "a blatant attempt to silence debate in Ireland."

In Leahy's view, pro-repeal leaders "wholeheartedly welcomed and applauded" Google's decision, and their reaction shows that the decision favors their side.
The Irish Times suggested that companies have become afraid that if voters reject the referendum, they will face blame and further scrutiny for allegedly influencing elections.

Facebook also announced a policy change, but said that it would be canceling only foreign-funded ads related to the referendum.

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John McGuirk, a spokesman for the Save the 8th campaign, welcomed Facebook's decision and suggested it would affect a very small percentage of ads. However, he argued that Google's move against domestic advertising was driven by fears of pro-abortion rights groups that they would lose the vote and therefore they wanted to limit voter information.

Irish law largely restricts foreign funding of political campaigns, but there is little legal oversight of social media.

Financier and philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundations and its pro-abortion rights grantees have already run afoul of Irish political finance rules.

Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland had received about $29,500 from the foundations in 2016, but returned it later that year after being contacted by The Republic of Ireland's Standards in Public Office Commission, which warned that the organization could be reported to the national police.

As of December 2017, Irish officials were in talks with the Irish Family Planning Association, which received $150,000 from the Open Society Foundations in 2016, because of possible violations of election laws on political funding.

That same month, officials ordered Amnesty International to return $160,000 to the foundations because the money violated Irish law barring foreign donations to third party groups seeking to influence the outcome of a referendum campaign. Amnesty International has challenged the opinion.

However, backers of repeal have similarly tried to make an issue of overseas advocacy from U.S. pro-lifers.

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The Washington Post, citing the Transparent Referendum Initiative, said Facebook ads have appeared from Live Action, the Radiance Foundation, and the New York City-based Expectant Mother Care/E.M.C. FrontLine Pregnancy Centers.

In March, the online weekly newspaper Dublin Inquirer interviewed Chris Slattery, founder and CEO of the New-York based pregnancy centers, about the sponsorship of those ads.

"I was requested by Irish pro-life activists to stir up Americans to stand with them to support the Eighth Amendment," he said, reporting that he had spent "a few hundred dollars" boosting posts to his "friends in Ireland."

Slattery voiced surprise that a journalist was calling him about the ads.

Facebook has said it has built relationships with political parties, groups representing both sides of the referendum, and the Transparent Referendum Initiative, "who we are asking to notify us if they have concerns about ad campaigns."

"We will then assess and act on those reports," Facebook said May 8. "We will also be using machine learning to help us with this effort to identify ads that should no longer be running."

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