How pervasive does a problem have to be before Facebook responds with policy changes?

This week Facebook introduced new policies to prevent users outside the Irish state from placing adverts related to the Referendum on the 8th Amendment and a requirement for more transparent information on advertisers within Ireland. Since the Referendum was officially launched in March there has been growing concern about strategic interference from anonymous advertisers and people/organisations outside Ireland.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the continued lack of knowledge about the extent to which digital marketers can sway Facebook users at election times has created an acute pressure point for the social media giant.
To support a more open debate, the non-partisan Transparency Referendum Initiative (TRef) has used crowdsourcing to collect a sample of adverts on Facebook. By asking Irish users to install the Who Targets Me plugin they have built a database of 649 adverts (as of the date the database was downloaded and analysed).

While there have been several examples of anonymous and overseas advertisements that have received media attention, examples do not illustrate the scale of a problem. Using the Tref database up to May 6th (two days before Facebook announced the policy change) it is possible to identify the locations or the obscurity of the locations of advertisers.

TRef ads
Note: This represents the total ads captured by TRef and not the total ads posted as of May 6th 2018.  Not all adverts are campaigns some are boosts for news media content about the referendum (22 ads) while others are reminders to register to vote (8 ads).


What did Facebook stand to gain and lose by this move? They suggest they had been thinking about it but with their expertise in data analysis, they no doubt crunched the numbers too. There is no doubt a range of reasons why Facebook moved to implement the new measures. But if The Irish Times can’t get an answer, this blog is not likely to either.

But the impact can be unpacked to some extent; They blocked potential advertisers losing their revenue, but in a small media market where they lose only a small portion of clients, they won’t be fretting over the bank balance any time soon. It was, however, a big PR coup showing Facebook to be taking action in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal.

On another issue, they blocked overseas accounts from placing ads, erecting a digital state border. However, Ireland is planning a Referendum to extend the right to vote to Irish people living abroad. The current advertiser block is temporary, until May 25th when Ireland takes to the polls. But none the less concerning given the implication that ‘foreigners’ (some of whom are diaspora groups) should not be engaging with Irish democracy and inappropriate if the move to repeat this during the future referendum to extend the borders of Irish democracy.  This is not a one policy fits all elections solution.
While it is not possible to identify the total ads placed (unless Facebook wants to release this – it would be very welcome), in some respects, this could set a benchmark for how pervasive a problem can be shown to be before Facebook, or other companies, are persuaded to respond with policy changes. Where future transparency activists can collect data and show the extent of a problem, this could act as a pressure point.

But it also shows that there is a capacity to monitor and respond to social media problems in real time. What would be welcome is Facebook making good on the promise to work with research scholars and perhaps going further and develop a real-time research team that can analyse and respond with measures before problems reach their peak.

But as the subsequent move by Google shows, the problem extends beyond Facebook to all social networks where advertising can be purchased and audiences targeted. There have been calls for Government Regulation of Social Media and there is a clear accountability lacuna. But we should not rush too quickly into state regulation of any media on the basis of one case study, particularly when there are models of media self-regulation that should be considered first.


For a range of reasons, advertisers might want to remain anonymous. The names and contact information of some page owners may not be provided so some research is required. The criteria for identifying a location or labelling it as obscure is outlined below.
Where a location is identified it has met one of the following standards:

Identified in ‘about’ in the address, or phone number or info and verified on a homepage.
Identified in ‘about’ in the address, or phone number or info.
Not Identified in ‘about’ but the location on the website homepage and or other social
Non-identified accounts the approach was deductive examining whether there are other social accounts and/or websites if the page presents overtly domestic Irish material such as links to local events consistent with the region, commentary on Irish media, politics etc. Are there links to international news, consistency linking to one country repeatedly? Where there is public information about other liked pages or interests that link to Ireland etc.

Obscure: If no location information can be found on the Facebook about section, website, about sections on other social, or a few pages in on Google and the page doesn’t post location-specific content, or so pan-global in the content that it is hard to detect.


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