That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for transparency in the disclosure of information in online political advertising; and to provide for related matters.
Online media and social media are at least as important and influential as traditional media in today's discourse and political debate, yet the same norms of behaviours, conventions and accepted practices are only beginning to emerge. Having been on Twitter since 2008 myself, I am familiar with the cut and thrust of online political debate. I recognise the strengths of the platform, including citizen journalism and wider engagement but it is also a challenge for accuracy, integrity and the truth. Identification and verification are far more difficult online and many actors may not be who they appear to be. False flag accounts and mass, orchestrated political campaigns which do not disclose their true purpose defraud us all and threaten our hard won democracy.
We have all heard of fake news and even of alternative facts. Bunreacht na hÉireann and the European Convention on Human Rights defend the right to free speech which includes the right to "shock, offend and disturb". They do not include a right to distort and conceal information and defraud the electorate, particularly when attempted in a systematic, large-scale way. We saw evidence in US congressional hearings on the last presidential election of what is alleged to have been a widespread, organised attempt at what amounts to voter fraud on social media. Congressional hearings heard how 126 million Facebook users in the United States were served content masquerading as local campaign websites but which allegedly emanated from Russia. We also have seen reports that similar tactics emerged during the recent Brexit debates and there is evidence that such activity is gathering pace here. Many well-known figures, including broadcasters and politicians, have seen their followings multiply in recent months, due to bots or unidentified accounts, presumably ahead of the next election or referendum. It is not difficult to game these platforms by generating what is called "fake organic" where multiple users make a post appear more popular than it really is by liking or retweeting it. There is a multiplier effect that is quite easy to control if one knows what one is doing.
These not only influence public opinion but can form an echo chamber, reinforcing a particular view for decision-makers and indeed broadcasters and falsely representing the public mood.