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The Census Is Going Digital, Bringing The Threat Of Disinformation Campaigns


Early next year, people will start getting letters in the mail about how they can participate in the U.S. census. This is the first time the census will be mostly online. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang looks at one of the challenges of going digital - the threat of disinformation spread through social media.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In 2020, the U.S. government is worried rumors and propaganda on social media could derail not only next year's elections but also the once-a-decade headcount that impacts at least 10 years of elections.


STEVEN DILLINGHAM: This is a new age. The last decennial census didn't really face...


DILLINGHAM: ...This type of challenge.

WANG: The Census Bureau's director, Steven Dillingham, says the bureau's been trying to monitor the potential threat from foreign governments and Internet trolls, anything from misstating how the census works to making fake census websites. That could disrupt the constitutionally mandated count of every person living in the country and jeopardize numbers that determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets and how state and local voting districts are redrawn.

VANITA GUPTA: We have one chance to do this right. There are no do-overs for the 2020 census.

WANG: Vanita Gupta, who heads the Leadership Conference on Civil And Human rights, is worried rumors and propaganda on social media could discourage communities of color and immigrant groups from the census, many of whom have little trust in the Trump administration, especially after the fight over the now-blocked citizenship question.

GUPTA: That fear can really be exacerbated and exploited when inaccurate information is put out in these communities.

WANG: The polarized rhetoric surrounding the failed push for a citizenship question has turned the census into a hot button trolls can push, according to Young Mie Kim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied Facebook ads.

YOUNG MIE KIM: The way this issue has been discussed is very politicized. So these are the weakest areas that malicious actors will target.

WANG: They could use social media platforms like Facebook and Google, which are among NPR's financial supporters. A key factor will be how fast the platform takes action on falsehoods, says Dipayan Ghosh, a former adviser to Facebook who now co-directs the Digital Platforms & Democracy project at Harvard.

DIPAYAN GHOSH: It's actually spread around by people more quickly than the truth. That's a deeply concerning fact when we consider that we want a fair census.

WANG: So far, only some of the top social media companies have put out updated user policies that restrict disinformation specifically about the census.


VICENTE GONZALEZ: Thank you, Mr. Zuckerberg, for being here and...

WANG: During a hearing on Capitol Hill last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had trouble directly answering a question from Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from Texas. Federal law prohibits the release of census information identifying individuals until 72 years after it's collected. But Gonzalez asked if Facebook would take down an ad that falsely stated census information about immigrants would be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: OK. So Congressman, where we are right now is we have in place a voter suppression policy. And we're working on finalizing that to extend that to a census...

GONZALEZ: This isn't voter suppression.

ZUCKERBERG: I agree. I'm sorry. I'm trying to answer your question.

WANG: Zuckerberg later said he expects the specifics of Facebook's census policy would be released in the coming weeks. It's not clear when Google, which owns YouTube, will release its policy.

Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, says he's been waiting for social media companies to share their plans.

BRIAN SCHATZ: They're saying the right things, but the proof will be in the pudding over the next several months to see whether they're actually doing it.

WANG: By the way, also over the next several months is what's expected to be a heated presidential primary season.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.