Belfast Telegraph

Laws for online political ads may not be in place before election – Varadkar

The Taoiseach said he does not believe in an outright ban on political advertising but it does need to be properly regulated and transparent.

Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)

By Aine McMahon PA

Leo Varadkar has said he cannot guarantee that laws to regulate online political advertisements will be in place before the next General Election.

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions in the Dail, the Taoiseach said he does not believe in an outright ban on political advertising but that it does need to be regulated.

Mr Varadkar has said he would like a General Election to be held in May.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the Government must strike a balance between free speech and preventing the spread of fake news through online political advertisements, which can be purchased on social media platforms by third parties and targeted at specific audiences.

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Brendan Howlin (Niall Carson/PA)

“I don’t believe in an outright ban on political advertising, whether that’s banning posters or banning print advertising or banning it online. But I do think it needs to be properly regulated and made transparent so that we know the source of any political advertising, who’s paid for it and how it’s been targeted,” he said.

“I think when it comes to this area, what we’re all striving to do is to balance the need for free speech and free expression on the one hand, with making sure that we don’t have fake news, that we don’t have misinformation – whether it’s online or in print.

“Misinformation or fake news is wrong, no matter whether it is online or in print, or on posters. We see quite a lot of fake posters appearing around the country at the moment, largely targeted at the Government,” he said.

He said an inter-departmental group identified an obvious gap between the treatment of print broadcast media and online platforms when it comes to political advertising.

“That’s something we need to change, because it is easier online to spread misinformation, because it is not properly regulated. So the current proposal is to regulate the transparency of online political advertising.”

I believe there is a real fear that this toxic rhetoric will actually encourage violence against people Brendan Howlin

Mr Howlin said he is concerned “about the open use of racist, sexist and other bigoted language on social media by fringe political groups and movements”.

“I actually had a conversation with somebody who’s regulating this for one of the platforms. He tells me that you will be actually shocked about what’s going on.

“They appear to have become bolder in recent months. I believe there is a real fear that this toxic rhetoric will actually encourage violence against people.

“At the last local elections, I was pleased to see candidates from our new communities standing for a multiplicity of parties but the sad truth is, many of them faced relentless attacks of a racist nature online.”

Mr Varadkar said he does not envisage the law to regulate political advertising being brought in by the next General Election.

“Our current estimate is that we will have the general scheme for Q2 2020, whether that’s in advance of the election or not… that’s as quickly as the department believes it can draft the legislation,” he said.

PA

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