Elections watchdog casts doubt on its ability to police online content

Working closely with social media platforms likely to be more effective than taking court action, Electoral Commission chairwoman says

It would be “difficult to work with” tougher powers around regulating social media content, according to the Electoral Commission’s chairwoman, who believes working with the platforms is a “better” approach to going to the courts.

Speaking in Dublin on Monday, Ms Justice Marie Baker said she was not disappointed that regulatory and enforcement powers, which have been legislated for, had not yet been put into action by the Government.

“If they were enacted they would obviously be tougher regulatory powers, but they’d be difficult to work with. It would possibly be a very challenging environment to find ourselves in, where we ended up down in the High Court making an application for the removal or correction of data,” she said.

The commission, an independent statutory body, was established last year but some of its powers have not yet been commenced. This is due to ongoing discussions with the European Commission regarding the alignment of its powers with the EU’s Digital Service Act, as well as the division of responsibilities with broadcast regulator Coimisiún na Meán.

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“It’s probably better to work with how the platforms, how they are evolving,” she said, adding that as issues emerge during a campaign the commission is already able to address them without resorting to court action. “I’m neither disappointed nor not; we’re doing what we can.”

Art O’Leary, Electoral Commission chief executive, said he was confident the body was well-equipped to deal with the challenge of misinformation despite some parts of the Electoral Reform Act not yet being commenced. He said it was not possible to predict the level of electoral interference that there may be during an 18-month period which will see all possible types of election – local, European and general – held in the State.

“Many, many countries are reporting interference and we can’t assume we’ll be exempt,” he told reporters in Dublin. “We are plugged into so many international networks at the moment where the sharing of intelligence in relation to these matters is very open. It is one issue of shared concern between electoral monitoring bodies all over the world.

“We are confident we have the tools within our framework and our existing powers and that we will have sufficient resources to be able to deal with anything that comes our way.”

Mr O’Leary said that disinformation could be dealt with as it arises or by “pre-bunking” – proactively putting information out in anticipation of disinformation relating to the electoral process. He said in another European country people had been encouraged to write their name on a ballot paper while voting to enter a raffle – an example he said would be relatively easy to counteract with correct information.

He said digital media literacy was of key importance during election campaigns and urged voters to treat all claims and coverage of elections with due scepticism, likening it to the approach of media consumers on April Fool’s Day.

Mr O’Leary said if the commission was forced to rely on those powers and resort to the courts to enforce them against a social media company to take down a post, then “we have lost this battle”.

“Our job is to work collaboratively with the platforms and to encourage people to engage in this process,” he said, adding that the commission had agreed a voluntary framework on misinformation and disinformation with the main social media platforms, which had been published.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times