SOCIAL media and tech giants have been taking a real kicking in the last couple of years. After the shell shock of the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump, attention soon turned to online networks and modern advertising to try and make sense of what happened.

While I’d still say it’s careless to ignore the very real social factors that helped drive people into the polling booths, there’s no doubt that the online world has a part to play. Many of us originally thought it was about swaying public opinion, but the real power lay in the data that could be extrapolated from users and then used in targeted campaigns by politicians and marketers.

But what has sometimes been most surprising is the tone from the tech giants, the hands being held up, the ‘we knew nothing gov’ defence. Facebook, for example, is either disingenuous or incredibly neglectful about how it runs its business and protects users, but either way, it doesn’t look good.

And so, just across the water in Ireland, Facebook has taken what appears to be quite a bold move to make clear that it doesn’t want its platform, or the data of its users, to be used to influence big political votes.

Ireland is gearing up for a referendum later this month on reforming legislation – the eighth amendment – which would effectively lift the ban on abortion and make way for new laws, and Facebook has taken the step of blocking ads from any influencers outside of Ireland that relate to the vote. Google, another battleground for advertisers and fake news purveyors, went a step further the next day when it announced it would ban all adverts about the vote.

“As part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland,” Facebook said in a statement.

It’s really quite unprecedented to see the tech giants make these moves. In Ireland, pro-choice campaigners broadly welcomed the news, but it didn’t go down so well with pro-lifers. They say that the internet is vital in enabling them to get their message out and, in a joint statement, Save The 8th, Pro Life Campaign and The Iona Institute claimed it was “an attempt to rig the referendum”.

They would say that, wouldn't they? Polls show that opinion is quite tightly divided in Ireland, but the pro-choice campaign is in the lead so far. Maybe they’re just gearing up to be bad losers.

Or maybe they’re giving us an insight into the inevitable fights over this that lie ahead. Imagine Nicola Sturgeon announces the date for indyref 2 tomorrow. And then imagine Theresa May, famous for her U-turns, decides that the final Brexit vote must be put to the public in a massive political showdown (it would be worth it to annoy Boris, Theresa, just a thought). What would the reaction be if the pro-indy campaign was prevented from advertising on the networks that became so important in 2014? How many conspiracy theories would erupt in England and Wales about the ‘Remoaners’ attempts to scupper democracy?

This action from Facebook and Google is a political one, whether they intend it to be or not. There’s no getting around it. They can’t wield the power they do, globally, and keep claiming an apolitical stance, nor can they get away with shirking responsibility.

It’s a difficult, if not impossible, position for these new-age businesses which may well want to be nowhere near all this, but this is the new reality and it affects all of us. The big problem, really, is that nobody seems to have any idea what we all do next.


I WAS a bit disappointed when I tuned in to the new series of Big Brother on Channel 4 to find a bunch of young folk having in-depth political chats instead of massive diva showdowns. That was until I remembered Big Brother isn’t on Channel 4 anymore and I was actually watching #Gendershock, a three-part series examining all of the complicated issues around gender that society is grappling with.

The first two parts of the show featured a group of people with a multitude of different identities moving in together to thrash out their views in an intense setting. What could possibly go wrong?

But to their credit, they actually handled it all very well, which is more than could be said for the audience in the final instalment of the show, a live debate featuring big names like trans woman Caitlyn Jenner and feminist Germaine Greer. It was nearly worse than the Question Time audience, and that takes some doing. I really can’t afford to lose another TV to objects being chucked across the room, and if I move my furniture any further away from the couch it’ll be in the next door neighbour’s house. Come back, social media debate, all is forgiven.