Friday 25 May marks a momentous day in Ireland’s history as the country goes to the polls to vote in an historic referendum on abortion law reform. Irish voters will be deciding on whether to repeal an amendment enshrined in the nation’s constitution of a near-total ban on abortion.
Yet it also marks a momentous day in the history of online advertising.
Friday’s vote will be one of the first held in a major western democracy since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which involved the data analytics firm acquiring up to 87 million people’s Facebook data for the use of political campaigning in both the 2016 American presidential election and the UK’s referendum on European Union membership of the same year. The vote also comes at a time when suspicion of foreign interference in elections through online advertising and social media has become widespread.
As a result, and amid major concern that outside influence could swing the Irish vote, tech giants Google and Facebook have both made telling interventions. Google has banned all adverts linked to the referendum, while Facebook has blocked foreign groups from paying for adverts and introduced a new transparency tool that enables anyone in Ireland to track online advertisements.
Such steps are an acknowledgment of the power of digital and its ability to engage consumers like no other medium, with any brand worth its salt today relying on online advertising to get its message across, be it through boosted social posts or targeted ads. ‘No’ campaigners in Ireland have expressed their frustration at the US tech giants’ joint stance, such was their dependence on social media, claiming they needed it to bypass the conventional media outlets that they accuse of bias.
Friday 25 May also happens to mark the date that tougher data privacy rules come into effect across the EU, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) having a major impact on organisations handling personal data linked to EU residents. That its introduction falls on the same date as the Irish vote, and amid all the talk about stricter rules around online advertising that has come with it, is purely coincidental. But it is symbolic of the age we are living in; one that is slowly seeking to regulate democracy in the digital era, having previously permitted bots and data harvesters to roam free.
With all the attention that has been given to online advertising restrictions in the run-up to Friday’s referendum, Irish voters have spoken of feeling like both guinea pigs in a Google-Facebook experiment, as well as pioneers of a new dawn. Political advertising in the digital space, it seems, may never be the same again.