Will Facebook influence the 2019 Swiss elections?

Swiss officials say they are in the dark about Facebook plans to use a controversial feature ahead of next year's parliamentary elections Keystone

Online social network Facebook is allegedly planning to deploy its controversial “I’m a voter” button in Switzerland ahead of parliamentary elections next year. The Swiss authorities have not been officially informed by the US company, according to Swiss media reports. 

This content was published on May 17, 2018 minutes

RepublikExternal link, a Swiss online news magazine, on Wednesday quoted a report in the Schweiz am WochenendeExternal link newspaper last month that Anika Geisel, manager of Facebook’s politics and government outreach team in Berlin, had met 20 politicians from all parties in Zurich on April 11. 

“The topic of the meeting was how candidates could benefit from Facebook’s campaign tools. It was intended as a promotional event for the technology company,” wrote. “One participant asked a question that had nothing to do with the marketing tools. Would Facebook be deploying its well-known ‘I'm a voter’ button in Switzerland? Yes, Geisel answered, the company was working on it.” 

According to Republik, the election button is to be deployed the week before Swiss elections, scheduled for October 20, 2019, to remind voters to head to the polls. But officials in Bern have not been officially informed, it said. 

“The Federal Chancellery has no knowledge of Facebook’s intention to deploy an ‘I’m a voter’ button in Switzerland. Facebook has not contacted us regarding this matter,” René Lenzin of the Federal Chancellery told Republik. 

‘Lifeblood of democracy’ 

The election reminder button appears on some users’ Facebook profiles, reminding them of their civic duty and showing them which of their friends have already voted. Republik claimed the button had influenced elections in 66 countries. 

“We believe that commitment and participation are the lifeblood of democracy,” a Facebook spokeswoman said when contacted by Republik. “That’s why we show people a reminder to vote on Facebook.” 

According to an in-depth reportExternal link in Das Magazin, a Swiss news magazine, which was edited and translated for British Sunday newspaper The ObserverExternal link, the first known cases of the button being used outside the US are the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the Irish constitutional referendum in 2015 and the British general election later that year. Das Magazin said the button had also been used in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election and in Germany’s 2017 federal elections. 

Regarding the button’s role in next year’s Swiss elections, the Facebook spokeswoman told Republik that nothing had yet been decided and that the company would “establish a dialogue with the officials responsible when the time comes”. She added that the company intends to steer clear of referendums in Switzerland for the time being. 

Adrian LobsigerExternal link, the federal data protection and information commissioner, told Republik that too much of his workload was currently linked to Facebook. “There are some digital data processing instruments that could be used for the purpose of influencing voting behaviour,” he said. 

Voters need to know about them, he told the website, and politicians need to be made aware of them. To that end, Republik reported that Lobsiger was currently assembling an interdepartmental group of experts, which plans to meet for the first time at the end of May.

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