Facebook finally banned ads from outsiders trying to influence Ireland's abortion vote

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Aiming to block interference in Ireland’s upcoming abortion referendum, Facebook will no longer accept ads paid for by people based outside the country.

The company, which has been under intense pressure to protect the integrity of elections around the world, said it made the decision after groups raised concerns over how outside groups were seeking to influence the outcome of the divisive vote, set for May 25.

“Concerns have been raised about organizations and individuals based outside of Ireland trying to influence the outcome of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland by buying ads on Facebook,” a said Tuesday. “This is an issue we have been thinking about for some time.”

Facebook’s decision comes less than two weeks after that hundreds of U.S. religious and political groups were using Facebook to meddle in Ireland's historic vote through a mixture of ad buys, misinformation campaigns, and fearmongering. The platform has an estimated 2.5 million users in the country.

Ireland’s electoral law prohibits foreign donations, but some campaigns had been accused of circumventing this rule by using ads bought on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as Google.

To identify foreign-bought ads, Facebook will use a combination of machine-learning and the cooperation of third-party groups like the Transparency Referendum Initiative, a nonprofit established to track the influence of Facebook ads on the outcome of the referendum.

“The presence of ads from foreign organizations is something we have identified and flagging with Facebook over the last couple of months, so it is great to see that they have taken action to address the issue,” Craig Dwyer, co-founder of the TRI, told VICE News.

Facebook is building that will require those looking to place political adverts to be resident in the country where the election is taking place.

It’s hoping to have the system in place for the midterm elections in the U.S. later this year, but believes the ban it has now put in place in Ireland will have the same net results.

“What we are now doing for the referendum on the Eighth Amendment will allow us to operate as though these tools, which are not yet fully available, were in place today with respect to foreign referendum-related advertising,” the company said.

While the latest decision by Facebook has been broadly welcomed, it does not address all the problems the company is facing around electoral ads.

Last week Facebook rolled out of its ad transparency tool in Ireland. The tool was hyped as a way for users to see exactly who was paying for political ads targeting them and others. But critics say it is failing, with anonymous ads, bogus accounts, and fake news appearing to spread unchecked.

Part of the problem is that Ireland, like many other countries, simply doesn’t have legislation in place to adequately deal with these issues, particularly regarding who is paying for the ads.

"We still need to work on reforming our electoral legislation, both to stop the presence of any organization outside of the country, but also to tackle those anonymous or untraceable pages that pop up with no information about who they are or where they are located,” Dwyer said.

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