On the morning of 28 October last year, the day of Iceland’s parliamentary elections, Heiðdís Lilja Magnúsdóttir, a lawyer living in a small town in the north of the country, opened Facebook on her laptop. At the top of her newsfeed, where friends’ recent posts would usually appear, was a box highlighted in light blue. On the left of the box was a button, similar in style to the familiar thumb of the “like” button, but here it was a hand putting a ballot in a slot. “Today is Election Day!” was the accompanying exclamation, in English. And underneath: “Find out where to vote, and share that you voted.” Under that was smaller print saying that 61 people had already voted. Heiðdís took a screenshot and posted it on her own Facebook profile feed, asking: “I’m a little curious! Did everyone get this message in their newsfeed this morning?” In Reykjavik, 120 miles south, Elfa Ýr Gylfadóttir glanced at her phone and saw Heiðdís’s post. Elfa is director of the Icelandic Media Commission, and Heiðdís’s boss. The Media Commission regulates, for example, age ratings for movies and video games, and is a part of Iceland’s Ministry of Education. Elfa wondered why she hadn’t received the same voting message. She asked her husband to check his feed, and there was the button. Elfa was alarmed. Why wasn’t it being shown to everyone? Might it have something to do with different users’ political attitudes? Was everything right and proper with this election?
Iceland had just reached the end of its most arduous and dirty campaign season ever. For weeks, anonymous accounts had been spreading accusations on social media about nearly every political candidate. The country had been flooded with bizarre “exposé” videos on Facebook and YouTube. Some had been viewed millions of times, even though Iceland has only around 340,000 residents. And now this button. Was there a connection?
Elfa watched as more and more people responded to Heiðdís’s post. Some had seen the button, others had not. Out and about on election day, Elfa asked everyone she met about it. It was clear that not everyone had received the message. Of those that did, some got it later than others. Some had seen it while scrolling through their Facebook newsfeeds; for others it appeared at the top. Meanwhile, responses to Heiðdís’s post appeared to show that users given the button option were not randomly selected either. Minors and non-citizens were not shown it: only those in the voting population. But then, as she was also discovering, not all of them. Was there some kind of pattern?