Posted by Guest on June 17, 2019 in Blog

In 2020, for the first time ever, the US Census will allow for online responses. This will be accompanied by an increase in official Census Bureau advertisements, particularly online, including social media. However, Census officials are anticipating targeted campaigns on social media designed to spread disinformation about the decennial census, which will compete with official advertisements for space on timelines and in respondents’ memory.

Ever since the 2016 election, the question of how to deal with disinformation – that is, maliciously spread false information – on social media has made headlines, and social media companies ranging from Facebook to Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and Google have largely been left to grapple with it themselves. Combatting disinformation is not a simple task, and there is no single strategy that will be a silver bullet for social media companies.

Though we explored disinformation on social media in-depth, we would like to provide some context for disinformation as it relates to the 2020 Census. As of May 2019, Census Bureau officials have indicated that discussion about disrupting the 2020 census has begun on platforms such as 4chan, a fast-moving, entirely anonymous online message board that has been the origin point for several grassroots hacking and harassment campaigns, but no actual action has been taken against the Census. However, it is expected that disinformation will begin to appear in earnest as the start of the 2020 Census approaches. The Census Bureau is anticipating several different types of interference targeting the census and has proposed solutions to address them. These can be split into three categories: Classic Misinformation, Wrong Directions, and Roadblocks.


Classic misinformation is the simplest but most pervasive and difficult to combat form of disinformation surrounding the Census. It consists of inaccurate information that is spread – maliciously or otherwise – regarding the census. Disinformation campaigns are often started and propagated by bad faith actors who intend to exploit the real fears of historically undercounted communities such as Arab Americans, immigrants, and poor people. This sort of manipulation is key to the plans of organized disrupters who want to suppress the census count, and they will likely use both  existing, pervasive rumors about the census in their campaigns, as well as false vulnerabilities or security breaches in the census due to the new online response option. Politically motivated authors of disinformation may hijack people’s growing distrust of the government, fueled by security breaches and breakdowns such as to try and negatively influence the outcome of the census, and ensure an undercount of hard to count communities like Arab Americans.


Website spoofing is a popular variant on phishing (the act of posing as a legitimate organization to trick individuals into providing sensitive information, such as password, financial information, or SSNs), involving the creation of a website with the intention to mislead visitors into believing the website belongs to a certain organization or business. The Census Bureau anticipates phishing attacks and website spoofs targeting the Census website, which, if successful, could disrupt the Census count. Additionally, it is possible that information from phished respondents could be released, exposing them to financial repercussions.


In 2016, the Australian Census was disrupted by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack from overseas. DDoS attacks involve an attacker overwhelming a website with a large number of requests, imitating the effect of a sudden mass influx of users and causing the website to shut down. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the agency was able to successfully prevent three DDoS attacks earlier in the day but decided to close the website after a fourth attack to prevent data breaches. Census officials are concerned about a possible repeat of this event during the 2020 United States Census. Additionally, census officials expect that over 60% of respondents will answer the census online. Given the total US population, it may be possible for real residents responding in good faith to overwhelm the census by themselves, potentially causing issues similar to those seen during the launch of in 2013. While denying respondents the ability to answer the census is not directly disinformation, failures of the census site can reduce trust in the Census and fuel misinformation.

A lot is resting on the success of the 2020 census. Correct counts mean more accurate federal funding and representation in Congress, whereas failure in any area could mean reduced trust in government and online response forms. However, actual failure may not be as important as perceived failure, and this is where combatting disinformation is vital. Effective protection against census-related disinformation has to begin early, be maintained throughout the census, and continue afterwards, so that the narrative of the census cannot be distorted after its completion.

In a series of blog posts, AAI will explain existing Census Bureau plans to protect against each type of disinformation and interference in the 2020 Census, what policies could mitigate disinformation in the future, and what individuals can do to help push back against disinformation on their social media.

Stay up to date on how to combat disinformation by joining the YallaCountMeIn! campaign today and help promote a fair and accurate count of Arab Americans right now!


This post was guest-authored by Emma Drobina, a Summer 2019 PhDX Fellow at the Arab American Institute.