Posted by Guest on July 03, 2019 in Blog

In a previous blog post, we discussed several forms of malicious interference that could affect the 2020 census. The 2020 census is a massive undertaking that will directly impact representation in Congress and the distribution of over 800 billion in federal funds per year, affecting Medicaid, school, and children’s health care funding under CHIP (the State Children’s Health Insurance Program). It has a straightforward goal – count every person living in the United States – but completing this is a complex endeavor that is slated to cost approximately $15.6 billion.

The complexity of the task and the importance of the outcomes make the Census a target for inaccurate information.

Classic misinformation 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 existing, pervasive rumors about the census in their campaigns, as seen below:

Census Bureau focus groups show a marked increase in government distrust fueled by the inclusion of the hotly-debated citizenship question and reports on debates within the Justice Department on sharing census responses with law enforcement despite the Census Bureau’s legal commitment to confidentiality. Furthermore, security breaches like the 2017 Equifax data breach, which exposed the personal information of 143 million Americans, and failures of government website launches like the have made many Americans wary of online response forms. With this in mind, the 2020 Census may see new rumors appear about the reliability and security of the website. 

The Census Bureau is faced with the difficult task of keeping people informed about real dangers, such as scammers pretending to be associated with the Census to get credit card numbers or Social Security information (which we will cover in more detail in next week’s post), without frightening them.

To help approach respondents, the Census plans to partner with over 300,000 organizations in communities nationwide to advertise the census and build rapport, particularly with historically underserved and undercounted communities. For example, Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance is providing $200,000 in grants for projects to help with digital literacy and educating citizens on the census. This campaign and others like it will address common census myths, including clarifying that the census is anonymous and directly affects respondents’ lives through the distribution of federal funds and through electoral representatives. Census officials are also trying to raise awareness about the technological steps they are taking to ensure respondents’ privacy is protected, from ensuring the online response form is secured against cyberattacks to updating the algorithms used to anonymize census data.

To address disinformation on social media in particular, Bureau officials have stated publicly that they are working with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and other companies to combat disinformation. No information has been released about the specifics of these projects, but we know that the census has asked for social media sites to use tactics similar to Pinterest’s suppression of anti-vaccine content to redirect search queries to official census information. According to released information, Google has considered creating a census-specific search project, while Facebook has discussed the possibility of joining security conversation between the Census Bureau and the Department of Defense as well as training Census workers using Facebook techniques.

The first step to combatting disinformation about the Census is learning about the Census, and AAI is dedicated to providing resources to help get out the count. Learning how to identify, report, and respond to disinformation is an invaluable skill for all those who want to participate in civic life. Working together, we can fight disinformation and keep the Census accurate.

Stay tuned for more posts in this series on how to address other forms of interference with the Census.

This post was guest authored by Summer 2019 Ph.D. Fellow Emma Drobina. 


Disinformation Series

Lies, Damned Lies, and Disinformation

An Introduction to Disinformation, Interference, and the 2020 Census