The use of internet ‘bots’ to influence political debate will be punished with fines of up to €10,000 or five years’ imprisonment under new laws tabled by Fianna Fáil.
Ground-breaking proposals to be brought before the Dáil this week will also make it an offence to actively promote ‘fake news’ using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The Bill comes on the back of claims that the election of US President Donald Trump was heavily influenced by Russian entities – but will have a major impact on the practices of political parties here.
It contains a number of restrictions on online political advertising and will require the purchasers of such ads to display a transparency notice stating their aim and target audience.
Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless, who has written the legislation, told the Irish Independent the law needs to start factoring in new media.
“We should not be naive in thinking Ireland will not be affected by the new form of hybrid information warfare which is underway on social media.
“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.”
The Kildare North TD added: “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.”
For the purposes of the law, ‘online platforms’ will be defined as any website, including social networks or search engines, which has more than 10,000 unique monthly visitors.
A ‘bot’ would be recognised in Irish law as any item of software which uses 25 or more accounts or profiles online to run automated tasks.
Mr Lawless said there needs to be a clampdown on “numerous fake accounts” being used “in order to disseminate a political message”.
The proposed law states that any person who knowingly uses a bot, or causes a bot to be used, in such a way as to cause multiple online profiles to act in a political way, will be guilty of an offence.
A low-level breach could result in a €500 fine or six months in jail, rising to €10,000 and up to five years in prison for a serious infringement.
Similar deterrents will be put in place for the purchase of online ads which purposely contain false or misleading information.
“It’s important that we move swiftly to bring some transparency to political debate on social media platforms,” Mr Lawless said.
“There is growing evidence which shows that manipulation is underway by various State actors aimed at undermining the democratic process. It’s important that we do all we can to protect the integrity of our democratic process here in Ireland.”
Mr Lawless said he will be looking for cross-party support for the measures because “social media platforms are playing a greater role in shaping political debate”. “However, despite this, the same rigour and robustness does not apply to verifying online content as our laws are still playing catch up in this area.”
He said the new laws would also keep tabs on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s new strategic communications unit, to make sure that it was not used for party political ends.
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