Data protectionFacebook pauses election day reminders in the EU

The social network likes to nudge its users to go to the polls. But after concerns from European data protection authorities, Facebook announces it will stop the feature.

Election reminders
Analogue reminders: German posters from the EU elections in May 2019 – Alle Rechte vorbehalten European Union

Facebook will stop showing voters in EU countries reminders on election day after scrutiny from European authorities.

„We are committed to processing people’s information lawfully, fairly, and in a transparent manner“, a Facebook spokesperson told netzpolitik.org.

„However, following concerns raised by the Irish Data Protection Commission around whether we give users enough information about how the feature works, we have paused this feature in the EU for the time being.“

Over the past years, election day reminders were shown to voters in at least 66 countries according to information provided by Facebook to Swiss magazine Republik.

Facebook first deployed the feature in the US midterm elections in 2010. A study published in Nature magazine found that the button raised voter turnout.

More recently, the feature was used in the German elections of 2017 and in the UK elections in December.

„We believe that the Election Day reminder is a positive feature which reminds people to vote and helps them find their polling place“, the Facebook spokesperson said.

Several EU member countries will hold elections this year. Poland votes for president in May, while Romania and Croatia are set to hold parliamentary ballots.

Italian concerns go Irish

Concerns about the feature were brought to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) by the Italian authority. As part of a probe in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Italians had observed that the election reminders „were not mentioned in the purposes as specified in the platform’s data policy“.

The Irish authority told netzpolitik.org that it had contacted Facebook ahead of the Irish election in early February. The feature had „raised a number of data protection concerns particularly around transparency to users about how personal data is collected when interacting with the feature and subsequently used by Facebook“.

„The DPC sought a number of remedial actions from Facebook. However, as it was not possible to implement these in advance of the Irish election, Facebook decided not to launch the [reminder] during the election“, the Irish authority said in an e-mail.

„Facebook has confirmed that the [reminder] feature will not be activated during any EU elections pending a response to the DPC addressing the concerns raised.“

Fear of higher Trump turnout

However, data protection concerns are not the only reason the reminders have attracted controversy. As Swiss journalist and author Adrienne Fichter argues in her piece in Republik, the supposedly benign feature still constituted a form of meddling in the democratic process of countries.

A story by Buzzfeed journalist Scott Lucas recently noted that Facebook’s active user base increasingly resembles „the Trump coalition — older, less-educated, and more Republican“.

Boosting turnout among this demographic could help the US president’s prospects for re-election this fall.

According to Buzzfeed, Facebook would not say whether they plan to use the turnout button again in the upcomning US elections.

Update on February 27, 2020: The statement by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner was added after publication of this article.

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