On May 25, Irish voters will decide whether to uphold the country’s constitutional ban on abortion -- and, as an op-ed in The Irish Times warned, “it would be naive to think” that anti-abortion groups won’t leverage the same digital targeting strategies “that helped both Donald Trump and Brexit to victory.”
Abortion has been almost entirely prohibited in Ireland since 1983, when the passage of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution outlawed all abortions except for those necessary to protect “the equal right to life of the mother” -- not allowing abortion even “in cases of rape or incest, or when there is a foetal abnormality.”
As the BBC noted in January, “There have been significant challenges and changes to the law in recent years,” including after the death of a woman in 2012 who was refused an abortion while she was miscarrying. Indeed, in December 2017, an Irish Parliamentary committee released a report arguing for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment because “medical practitioners do not feel supported by the law in providing necessary care for the women of Ireland.” The report continued that the ability to “travel” elsewhere for an abortion “and more recently the availability of illegal abortion pills” made the issue one that lawmakers could not “continue to ignore.”
Due to Ireland’s strict abortion laws, the country has long been of interest to anti-abortion groups in the United States, which have held up its prohibition as a model for what American groups can hope to accomplish some day. As a result, some Irish media have begun warning about the potential of anti-abortion groups -- from the United States and beyond -- utilizing sophisticated digital marketing tactics to target Irish voters.
For example, The Irish Times reported that “almost 100 Facebook posts related to the abortion referendum and targeted at Irish users have been identified as having been paid for.” Researchers looking into the advertisements identified the sources of these posts as ranging from “political parties” to “individual politicians” to even U.S. anti-abortion groups such as the Radiance Foundation (although the group disputes its inclusion in this list) and Rachel’s Vineyard (a project of Priests for Life). TheJournal.ie similarly noted that because Facebook was “a main battleground” for public opinion over the referendum, there were already “a number of foreign organisations posting ads aimed at sections of the Irish electorate.”
Although both sides will surely use Facebook to reach prospective voters, The Independent wrote that former Irish Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte told the paper that “anti-abortion extremists are likely to use social media to spread disinformation in a bid ‘to frighten the population into retaining the status quo.’” He continued: “The anti-abortion shock troops are prepared and have in the past used any means to prevail in the argument.” Rabbitte argued that although this sentiment wasn’t universal among anti-abortion groups, there is “an element of the anti-abortion zealots who believe in shock and awe to frighten the population into retaining the status quo” who “are linked in to international organisations that have very definite views on this."
Beyond concerns over foreign involvement in social media campaigning before the vote, other outlets have voiced fears that anti-abortion forces will deploy illicit practices like those used by the firm Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, where they stole users’ Facebook data without permission and used it to microtarget content to sway voters. Although there is no evidence that groups on either side have acted improperly, two Irish anti-abortion groups have made recent hires that should make media, good-governance watchdogs, and voters wary.
On March 26, The New York Times reported that the anti-abortion group Save the 8th Campaign hired Kanto Systems, whose founder, Thomas Borwick, “was chief technology officer for the Vote Leave campaign in Britain, and developed a canvassing app for Cambridge Analytica.” At the same time, the Times said, “the Pro Life Campaign, Ireland’s largest umbrella anti-abortion group, has retained uCampaign, a Washington firm that has developed apps for the Trump campaign, the National Rifle Association, the Republican National Committee and Vote Leave.”
As the Irish Times op-ed warned, “It is hard to think of a single person who better embodies the transatlantic nexus of right-wing digital influencers” more than Borwick, and his hiring should inspire greater scrutiny and caution with this referendum:
According to John McGuirk of Save the 8th, Kanto has been hired merely to create a website and track its use. This may well be so, but it is decidedly odd. Kanto is Thomas Borwick. According to its filing with Companies House in London, Kanto Systems has two registered officers, its company secretary, Thomas Borwick, and its company director, Thomas Borwick. There is also Kanto Elect, registered at the same address. It too has two directors: Thomas Borwick and Kanto Systems. Save the 8th hasn’t hired web services. It has hired Borwick.
And hiring Borwick to create and manage a website is like employing the SAS to run security at a school hop or bringing in Einstein to tot up your shopping bill. He seems awfully overqualified for the job. There are probably thousands of people in Ireland who could create a campaign website that would allow McGuirk and his colleagues to tell, as he puts it, whether “600 people from Tipperary are logging on”. I am sure there are highly motivated anti-abortion idealists who would even do this for free.
Anti-abortion groups have employed a firm with the experience necessary to personalize their outreach to the interests of specific audiences, making those audiences more likely to engage with the anti-abortion content. The question is: Will this savvy marketer target them with posts that are full of anti-choice lies? And will he be leveraging his relationship with Cambridge Analytica -- and its 50 million records of ill-gotten personal data from Facebook -- so that his microtargeting is even more effective?