'It's a fine target': Census bureau to fight misinformation

FILE - In this April 23, 2019, file photo, immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 Census, in Washington. Worried about internet trolls and foreign powers spreading false news, census officials are preparing to battle misinformation campaigns for the first time in the bureau’s 230-year history.

Sign of the times: Worried about the spread of false news through social media, census officials are preparing — for the first time in the count’s 230-year history — to address misinformation campaigns that might arise.

The stakes in the war against misinformation are huge. Who participates in the 2020 census count could influence how U.S. congressional seats and billions of federal tax dollars used to educate children, help low-income families, pave new roads and more are divvied up.

Former U.S. Census Bureau director John Thompson termed the form which is sent to households in America every decade to count the population “a fine target.” “If you want to disrupt a democracy, you can certainly go about it by disrupting a census,” he told The Associated Press.

False and inaccurate social media posts about the census have already begun to appear online and have been viewed thousands of times.

The AP reported that fake posts about the census began popping up days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Trump administration could not ask about citizenship status on the 2020 census form.

Conservative bloggers, Twitter users and pundits falsely blamed former President Barack Obama for scrubbing the question from the form in 2010, while the facts show that the census form hasn’t included a citizenship question since 1950, and the Census Bureau’s own analysis found it would discourage people from participating, and possibly skew results of the count.

Just last month, sham posts popped up warning online neighborhood chat groups that robbers were scamming their way into people’s homes by asking to check residents’ information for the upcoming census. Census Bureau officials, worried that census workers who were knocking doors to verify addresses could face trouble, scrambled to get the post removed from Facebook.

As a first line of defense, census officials have spent months forging relationships with dozens of technology companies that keep close guard on their massive datasets and proprietary information.

The Census Bureau now works directly with major platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, to help inform citizens about the mechanics of the census and to stamp out inaccurate information.

Both Facebook and Google have told The Associated Press they will set up teams dedicated to stopping misinformation about the census. Facebook will use a mix of people and artificial intelligence to spot, review and remove troublesome posts.

Twitter will use artificial intelligence and employees to spot and remove misleading posts about the census and will also rely on users to report concerns about possible census misinformation.

At the same time, a team of more than a dozen Census Bureau employees is monitoring social media, scanning for bad tweets and Facebook posts. The bureau will publish its own fact checks on a dedicated “rumors” page.

To that end, the Census Bureau is encouraging every citizen who sees or hears something about the 2020 census that is confusing or questionable to let the bureau know by contacting the Census Bureau at rumors@census.gov.

We would encourage everyone to take advantage of that opportunity. We would also encourage people to utilize that site to learn more about the census count.

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