Since Donald Trump’s election here in the U.S. and the U.K.’s decision to cut ties with the European Union, there has been a lot of talk about “fake news” and the use of bots and fake accounts on social media created with the goal of manipulating voter decisions. Websites and organizations have since been formed in order to combat other websites and social media accounts designed to muddy facts online but Irish legislators want to take that idea a step further and make the use of bot accounts or knowingly spreading malicious and false information online a crime punishable by as many as five years in prison.
Under current law, political ads do not require the same amount of transparency as their print or televised counterparts do. As a result, armies of bots have taken to websites like Twitter in order to confuse voters or to convince voters that one politically charged idea or candidate is more popular than another.
In September, Facebook admitted to media they were forced to shut down hundreds of accounts they believe were linked to a Russian company that had purchased $100,000 worth of political ads during the U.S. election campaign. As a result, the U.S. and Canada are also considering measures in order to promote transparency in political ads online. While neither country has spoken on whether they plan to introduce fake news laws, they are working with a company to introduce tools in order to inform the public whether or not the ad has been purchased on behalf of a political issue or candidate.
Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless, who drafted the legislation, warns voters that they should not be so naive as to think that this same technology wouldn’t be utilized during the republic’s own political campaigns.
“Evidence suggests that an army of fake social media accounts is being amassed to disrupt the democratic process in the future, with journalists and prominent public figures highlighting an upsurge in the number of dubious accounts following them on social media platforms,” Lawless told Irish News. “It’s highly likely these dormant accounts will spring into action during a future election or referendum campaign, as happened in Britain and the US.”
So far it’s been proposed that under the new law, a person found operating more than 25 automated social media accounts “in such a way as to cause multiple online profiles to act in a political way, will be guilty of an offence,” the Irish News states.
If the new law passes, those who are found guilty of disseminating fake news could face a minimum sentence of a €500 fine or six months in jail, while a maximum possible sentence can fetch as much as €10,000 in fines and up to five years behind bars.