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Census Bureau prepares to fight disinformation campaigns ahead of 2020 count

  • The Census Bureau is trying to head off any possible disinformation efforts aimed at disrupting the 2020 count.
  • It's asking major tech companies and online platforms to help stave off rogue actors.
  • Disinformation plus Americans' growing distrust of government could result in a staggering undercount.

The Census Bureau is enlisting major tech companies as it prepares for a campaign to combat disinformation and false news in the run-up to the 2020 census. The bureau has approached Google, Facebook and Twitter to stave off rogue actors. It's also working with Google, Microsoft and other tech companies to improve the census' visibility online, the agency told CBS News.

"The 2016 election was kind of a wake-up call. Our partners at Homeland Security are saying in 2020 they're concerned about the census and the election," said Ron Jarmin, deputy director of the Census Bureau.

The results of the once-in-a-decade count determine political representation and distribution of nearly $700 billion in federal funds every year. (While the Census Bureau conducts many surveys based on sampling, the decennial census is the only program to actually count all U.S. residents.)

Undercounting and overcounting

Certain groups of people — including black and Hispanic residents, Native Americans on reservations, renters and poor people — have been underrepresented in prior counts, while homeowners and white residents were overcounted. The Trump administration's attempt to add a last-minute citizenship question to the census further creates confusion, setting the stage for potential disinformation campaigns, such as misleading ads or straight-up false news stories.

What are the benefits and risks of conducting the 2020 census online? 03:44

"We're concerned about people seeing messages, like if they search on April 2, that if you didn't fill out your census, it's too late. We're trying to make sure that when people search they get correct information," said Jarmin. 

Other fake messages could tell people that in filing a tax return, their census reply was also filled out automatically (not true) or that information the census collects on residents could be shared with immigration or finance authorities. (The census bureau is bound by law to keep information confidential, in the interest of getting the most accurate count possible.) Add that to Americans' growing distrust of government institutions, and the potential undercount could be staggering, said academics and civil rights advocates, shifting political power and access to federal funds for a decade.

Disrupters are busy preparing

Already, online discussion forums on places like 4chan are showing conversations about disrupting the count from both U.S. and foreign actors, according to Reuters. Jarmin referenced research from Data & Society that shows discussions to disrupt are taking place.  

The Census Bureau doesn't expect to see concrete efforts to interfere with the census until the count is under way, Jarmin said. But he could conceive of a situation in which, like in the 2016 elections, certain demographic or ideological groups are targeted, he said.

Former DOJ official slams census citizenship question 02:22

The bureau is asking Google, Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms for "search bar optimization," to help steer inquiries about the census to accurate content, Jarmin said. It will run a campaign amplifying positive messages about the census, in cooperation with about 300,000 partners — community, church and business groups. And it will ask platforms to aggressively take down false news and delete accounts that spread spoofs or lies.

"Overall, misinformation is not really a new issue," said Stephen Buckner, a Census Bureau spokesperson. "Because of the digital channels and how we share information globally now, it allows for spread of misinformation much quicker. Something could get out of hand really quickly if you're not prepared to address misinformation quickly."

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