During the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, few thought Donald Trump would become President. With their EU membership on the line, few believed the UK taking to the polls would see a majority vote for leave as Brexit became a reality. Democracy has given us these two massive shocks and others in recent years because democracy isn’t always clear-cut; a fact that people in high places are keen to exploit. With Ireland heading towards a May referendum, I wanted to show you why voting to Repeal the Eight is more important than ever.

How Trump and Brexit Votes Were Influenced

Like I said, democracy isn’t always clear-cut as voters are often on the fence waiting for something to influence them; these are known as swing voters. Steve Bannon, a senior Trump strategist during his election campaign, appreciated the power of social media in reaching these swing voters. Alongside the cash investment and leadership of billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, Bannon harnessed huge volumes of Facebook data to help influence the behaviour of voters, assisting Trump to the White House.

At the core of Bannon’s strategy to harness the power of Facebook is Cambridge Analytica, where Mercer sits on the board. The depths of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Trump campaign were astronomical after the company gained access to the data of 50 million Facebook users. Armed with this data and the guidance of Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign was able to tailor targeted messages directed towards voters and influence them to vote Trump.

Harnessing Facebook’s Data

Facebook denied they experienced a breach and that this data was gathered through Facebook apps before being sold on to third parties, breaching the platform’s terms of service. Regardless, many, myself included, believe Facebook neglected to provide sufficient care for the personal data of their users, taking three years to repair the loophole which allowed Cambridge Analytics to harvest personal data from 50 million users.

While this all sounds very scary, it’s with some relief I can say that was the US election. With a little more unease, I have to highlight similar activity took place during the UK’s Brexit vote. While Cambridge Analytica might not have been involved, Kanto was, a company founded by Thomas Borwick; a former Cambridge Analytica employee. Unfortunately, it gets even worse. It’s suspected that a lot of money is being put behind anti-abortion ads ahead of Ireland’s referendum on the Eighth Amendment in an effort to swing votes to save the Eighth.

Why Voting to Repeal the Eighth is More Important Than Ever

Politicians, while generally questionable at the best of times, are doing the right thing and calling for increased transparency into online political campaigns. This follows fears that anti-abortion messages, ripe with disinformation, are being spread across social media. While both sides of the debate have raised questions about the use of social media as a campaign tool, The Times revealed in January how anti-abortion supporters hired Kanto to run digital campaigns to influence voters with a view to retaining the Eighth Amendment.

The most recent Irish referendum saw gay marriage become legal with 62.1% voting yes and 37.9 voting no. Right now, about half of voters would appear to be in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, leaving plenty of wiggle room for outside influence over social media and disinformation to swing this vote, just as was the case with Trump and Brexit.

This was confirmed in a statement provided to Goosed.ie from the Irish Data Protection Commissioner which stated “micro-targeting of social media users with political advertisements and sponsored stories remains an ongoing issue today. In the absence of laws specifically regulating such political targeting online, the Irish DPC intends to issue guidance to users in terms of how they can trace why they are receiving certain advertisements and stories on social media, how they can mute or turn off receiving advertisements from those sources and how they can amend their ad preferences to control the types of ads they are served.”

Not only is it critical everyone retains a healthy level of scepticism when it comes to online, but it’s critical you get out and vote. Whether it’s in May or June, when this referendum goes ahead it’s likely to run quite close so be sure to get out and vote #RepealThe8th

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