'Dark ads' cast a shadow over Ireland's referendum on abortion

A screenshot taken on May 11 of Savethe8th's Facebook page, an anti-abortion group in Ireland.

Dublin (CNN)Attempts by Facebook and Google to tackle "dark ads" and foreign interference in the run-up to Ireland's referendum on abortion haven't been entirely successful, data from a transparency group seen by CNN has shown.

The Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI), a volunteer organization set up to monitor social-media posts about the referendum has collected ads from 180 Facebook groups targeting Irish voters.
Facebook announced it would ban all ads from foreign groups on May 8, writing, "We understand the sensitivity of this campaign and will be working hard to ensure neutrality at all stages. We are an open platform for people to express ideas and views on both sides of a debate. Our goal is simple: to help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue."
    But TRI data shows that out of around 200 new ads related to the vote since that announcement, at least 31% have been administered at least in part by page managers outside Ireland.
    Google also announced it would not accept any political ads on any side of the campaign last week. "Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment," a statement read.
    Yet screenshots sent to TRI from voters in Ireland after that announcement showed ads continuing to appear on Google's platform.
    One week after Google said it would "pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment," some ads were still appearing in those searches. Google said they had "taken action" after being showed this ad.
    Irish law bans foreign citizens and groups from making donations to campaign groups and prohibits political ads on television or radio broadcasts during campaigns. The ad bans do not extend online or on social, meaning anyone is open to buying an ad on platforms like Facebook or Google.
    Ireland's abortion laws -- some of the most restrictive in the developed world -- are enshrined in the eighth amendment to the country's constitution, which places an unborn child's right to life on equal footing with that of the mother. On May 25, Ireland will vote to repeal or retain the amendment.

    A global campaign

    Transparency campaigners and a group of journalists, including CNN, worked with TRI data to identify Facebook pages related to the referendum managed by people outside Ireland. The most common locations were the US and the UK.
    Those locations were revealed last Friday after Facebook accidentally rolled out a live tool still in the testing phase called "Page History." It showed the location of a Facebook page's manager or managers and how many people were administering it.
    Preliminary analysis of that data by social media intelligence and news agency Storyful found that 81% of pro-repeal ads were managed solely in Ireland, compared to 37% of anti-repeal posts.
    Screenshot of the Protect the 8th, an anti-abortion group's Facebook page on Friday.
    Savethe8th, a national anti-abortion group, are a staunch No campaign group. Data showed group managers in locations in Hungary, the UK and two other countries, according to the data.
    Savethe8th has not responded to CNN's request for comment.
    Another page belonging to the White Flag Movement, with managers in the US and Ireland, has posted a video by American anti-abortion activist Dr. Anthony Levatino featuring graphic depictions of first-trimester abortions.
    According to the TRI data, at least 40% of anti-repeal posts have come from pages that aren't registered with Ireland's ethics watchdog, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), compared to 17% of pro-repeal posts.
    Under current Irish law, Facebook pages related to the referendum do not need to be registered with SIPO, however ones that are demonstrate they are in Ireland with campaigns financed by Irish funds.
    An ad from California-based Apologia Studios targeting Irish users is seen more than a week after Facebook said it would ban all ads from foreign groups.
    Anonymous accounts with no contact information accounted for 13% of anti-repeal posts and 3% of pro-repeal posts.
    An ad from a Facebook page called "Life" targeted Irish voters this week with a Fox News article about a NY homicide trial connected to the 2016 death of a woman who had an abortion.
    In a statement on May 11, Facebook said the "early test" of the "Page History" feature was "mistakenly launched" to users in Ireland and Canada.
    Facebook told CNN they would not be able provide further information on the location data seen in the Page History tool.
    The "Page History" feature has since been deactivated.
    When CNN showed Google an ad related to the referendum that had continued to appear on their platform this week, Google said they had taken action to remove them.
    TRI co-founder Liz Carolan says Google's decision leaves many questions unanswered.
    "I think that our institutions and voters should have access to the information that prompted this private company to take such a drastic step so close to polling day," she told CNN.
    "What did they see that made them act so promptly to protect our "electoral integrity?"

    'Anyone can spread any message'

    The data captured while the Facebook tool was active has raised concerns about the spread of foreign influence and misinformation.
    "We cannot as a sovereign nation allow tech giants to decide who gets to campaign on the Irish constitution and run the Irish government," James Lawless, Irish lawmaker and technology spokesman for the op