Senator Higgins and other panel members looked at the challenges that big data can pose to the integrity of the democratic process. Examples of the serious consequences of manipulation of data and the spreading of false information can be seen worldwide. Recently, in the United States of America, provocateurs and bots have been demonstrated to have played an important role in the polarisation of debate in the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections. Investigations have discovered that Russian-bought ads reached over 11 million people on social media, posting content which, when amplified through fake accounts and bots reached over 126 million people, often in a highly targeted way.
"This manipulation us not just skewing the outcomes of debate it is affecting the tone of debate, with content designed to drive division." said Senator Higgins.
"The most serious consequences are not only at the ballot box - we have seen the oppression and attacks on the Rohingya people in Myanmar encouraged by false information about the ethnic group deliberately being spread through social media."
"There have been some recent moves to regulate this area in Germany where a time limit was set for the removal of offensive content and in Spain where consent around data use is being looked at."
Senator Higgins noted that "one of the keys to regulating big data is transparency. In the United States a bipartisan “Honest Ads” bill is being introduced in the Senate which would require transparency around who is sending a political advertisement on social media and how people are being selected to receive it".
Senator Higgins further noted “In Ireland there is a growing concerns about the growing prevalence of fake social media accounts and the potential for impact on the democratic process. In advance of the referendum on the eighth amendment due next summer, it is particularly important that false information, bots and provocateurs do not manipulate and polarise a very sensitive debate. “
Senator Higgins will continue to work with other parliamentarians nationally and internationally to look at the potential for regulation in this area.