Ireland Is Holding A Referendum On Abortion, And Misinformation Is Already Being Spread On Facebook
Several posts, including paid-for ads making false claims about abortion, have begun to appear in people's feeds – and there's not much Facebook can do about it.
With less than two months to go until Ireland holds a historic referendum on repealing the eighth amendment – the law which prohibits abortion in almost all circumstances – Facebook is expected to be a major campaign battleground.
Facebook says it aims to ensure all content posted on its platform complies with the law, but legal guidelines and restrictions that ensure the accuracy of political campaign information distributed in Ireland do not apply to social media.
While the Irish government has proposed laws to address that, the legislation will not be finalised before the abortion referendum takes place on 25 May.
In the meantime, Facebook is working to help its users to differentiate between "fake news" and genuine campaign content with the help of an "educational notice" that will appear at the top of people's news feeds in Ireland, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
The social media giant has already been criticised after it failed to remove a sponsored post from the Pro-Life Ireland campaign that included a disputable claim that relaxing abortion laws led to more women seeking the procedure. Facebook said the post did not violate its terms of service.
Analysis by independent monitoring body Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI) has already found evidence of targeted Facebook posts paid for by non-Irish anti-abortion organisations appearing alongside sponsored content by pro-abortion and anti-abortion groups based in Ireland.
Earlier this week, New York–based anti-abortion group Expectant Mother Care-EMC FrontLine Pregnancy Centers published a post urging its Facebook users to share content from Save the 8th, Ireland's major anti-abortion campaign. It includes a link to donate money to Expectant Mother Care.
Save the 8th has also enlisted UK-based digital media consultancy Kanto, which ran Vote Leave's Brexit campaign and has links to Cambridge Analytica, to assist with its digital strategy.
Expectant Mother Care has paid to target the post to Facebook users in Ireland, according to TRI.
A post by the EMC group urging people to attend an anti-abortion rally in Dublin earlier this month also appeared to have been paid to be placed in Facebook feeds in Ireland, according to TRI's data.
Anti-abortion groups that appear to be based within Ireland, and have made misleading claims about abortion, have also paid for targeted posts.
Several posts by the popular page Pro-Life Ireland were flagged to TRI using its "Who Targets Me?" browser widget, which highlights sponsored posts to Facebook users.
The page appears to be independent of the anti-abortion group Prolife Ireland – another of the major organisations campaigning to retain the eighth amendment – which has its own similarly named Facebook page.
Pro-Life Ireland, which posts several times a day, has featured a variety of content that makes misleading claims about abortion.
One such post, that was flagged to TRI by a Facebook user in Ireland who said it appeared as sponsored content in their feed earlier this week, claimed that drugs used in medical abortion were life-threatening.
"We are having a national vote to give death in a pill," the post read. "Imagine giving a healthy woman a pill that could possibly kill her, not to mention the fetus." The post included several links to research which was between 6 and 13 years old.
Dr Abigail Aiken, whose research examining the safety of abortion drugs has appeared in the British Medical Journal, told BuzzFeed News she believed the post was misleading, because while any drug can cause death, drugs used for medical abortion are statistically some of the safest.
"The risk of death is extremely low," Aiken said. "A 2013 US study found the risk of death for medical abortion performed up to 7 weeks gestation to be 0.4 deaths per 100,000 (or 0.004% of all people who had a medication abortion).
"By contrast, the pregnancy-associated mortality rate among women who delivered live neonates in 2013 was 28 deaths per 100,000 live births.
"You have a higher risk of dying from a colonoscopy or a wisdom tooth extraction than you do from a medication abortion.
"So, extending the 'logic' of the ad, you also claim: 'Imagine giving a woman a procedure that could kill her' every time she needs minor surgery."
Pro-Life Ireland has also posted content stating that women who have abortions are more likely to commit suicide, a claim that is regularly disputed by mental health professionals.
A spokesperson for Pro-Life Ireland declined to comment to BuzzFeed News about how they intended to use the page during the ongoing referendum campaign.
"We give and [sic] interview only when we know who are the investors in the abortion industry," the spokesperson said, including a link to a post highlighting profits made by an American pharmaceutical company.
An estimated 2.6 million people in Ireland spend an average of six hours a week on Facebook, according to the Irish Independent.
While Irish law does monitor and restrict organisations who pay to support a political campaign this way, and prohibits international donations, this is virtually impossible to police on social media, where there is no indication of who has paid for ads.
“We understand that misleading information can be harmful to our community and we want to do our part to help people make informed decisions about what they read," a spokesperson for Facebook told BuzzFeed News.
"That’s why we’re working in the background to disrupt the economic incentives behind false news and building new products such as ranking updates to identify and limit the spread of false news.
"It’s also why we will be launching a new educational notice that will appear at the top of everyone's news feed in Ireland to help them spot false news."