As U.S. Census Bureau workers fanned out across neighborhoods in September to verify addresses for next year’s count, some Facebook users were being served up an ominous piece of fake news.
Criminals masquerading as “officials from home affairs,” who claimed to be checking IDs for next year’s Census, were actually robbing houses.
The false report had a kernel of truth. In 2017, South Africa’s Home Affairs Department warned of a real robbery scam in which fake officials showed residents fake documents before barging in. But there is no Home Affairs Department in the U.S., and Census Bureau officials warned that more paranoid Americans might not open their doors, or worse, answer with a gun.
Census Bureau officials told VICE News that thousands of people shared the story on social media before readers started flagging it to them. The agency debunked the story on its website, alerted independent fact-checkers, and warned organizations like the AARP that it was bunk.
“We didn’t kill it entirely,” said Zack Schwartz, deputy chief of the Census Bureau’s Center for New Media & Promotion. “But we were able to slow the spread of it.”
It was an early warning sign in an infowar that could grow every bit as hot as the 2020 election. Census data is the invisible foundation for much of the American economy and political system. It decides each state’s number of congresspeople. It dictates changes to your grandparents’ Social Security checks. It guides how Washington spends taxpayer money on roads, hospitals, and schools.
And foreign and domestic attempts to disrupt it could be coming. For the Russian hackers and far-right shitposters who successfully screwed with the 2016 election, the fact that Census data will be largely collected online for the first time in 2020 represents a a huge and slow-moving target.
And unlike next year’s presidential election, which has already been targeted by Iranian-linked groups, we’ll have to live with the results for the next decade.
“The Census is our nation’s largest peacetime operation. You don’t fool around with such a complex operation,” said Mary Jo Hoeksema, co-director for The Census Project, an advocacy group. “Cybersecurity is a big issue and we’re all on pins and needles on how this is going to roll out.”
Advocates fear that countries such as Russia, Iran, and China, could turn any election-related campaigns next year toward the Census. Projections by the nonprofit Urban Institute suggest that areas with high Latinx and African-American populations could be disproportionately affected by any undercounts. That could mean fewer electoral votes and federal dollars for states like California and Texas.
It doesn’t help when the White House, which spews xenophobic messaging and tried and failed to add a controversial citizenship question to the Census, could discourage immigrants to comply.
“This round, the president’s tweeting is likely to be a major factor in Census response or non-response,” said Margo J. Anderson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor who researches the Census.
Big Tech Warned
Census Bureau officials frantically are shoring up defenses in concert with tech companies, meeting with representatives for Google, Microsoft, and others to coordinate. Facebook is preparing to roll out a policy change targeting Census-related misinformation this fall, and a Twitter spokesperson told VICE News that it’s in the process of clarifying its policy language to target any attempts to manipulate or interfere with the tally.
Despite some voluntary transparency efforts by those platforms in the aftermath of 2016, however, they remain largely opaque and unaccountable.
In July, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, urged executives at Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit to publicly report their Census-related content moderation efforts and share flagged content with partners in real-time. Schatz Spokesman Michael Inacay told VICE News that only Reddit responded to the letter.
“I wish I could reassure you that some of these companies get it 100 percent.”
“I wish I could reassure you that some of these companies get it 100 percent,” said New York Rep. Yvette Clarke, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which launched a Census task force this summer. “It hasn't been demonstrated fully thus far.”
Those concerns have come alongside big question marks in funding. While counting households has grown more expensive in recent decades, according to the Government Accountability Office, the Census Bureau’s budget increases haven’t kept pace. It’s had to scale back or delay research and field tests as the government has careened from one fiscal crisis to the next.
Agency officials like Stephen Buckner have been hustling to prepare for any attempted interference despite it all. The Department of Homeland Security is helping defend the portal where Americans can share data and computer systems where the government will store it. The Census Bureau has launched a new email hotline and website for hoaxes. And it’s broadcasting a singular message to every nonprofit group that will listen: If you see something, say something.
“With growing mistrust of government, our partners play an invaluable role to be that trusted voice in those local communities,” said Buckner, assistant communications director at the Census Bureau.
There have only been scattered examples of misinformation so far. The New York Times reported in July that a neo-Nazi website implored readers to apply to be Census takers and report undocumented people to ICE. Advocates warn that sort of fearmongering could snowball as counting begins in earnest next spring.
Census Bureau officials hope to combat any fake news by pushing out accurate information through partners, including tech platforms like Reddit, which launched an AMA series “demystifying the 2020 Census” last week. The government is also launching a multimedia ad campaign across 13 languages, competing with the presidential campaign for both public attention and advertising slots.
“When there’s an information void,” Buckner said, “these things seem to grow.”
Tech platforms’ response will be crucial if they do. For Silicon Valley’s part, it’s largely folding Census defenses into existing election-security measures.
A Twitter spokesperson said it plans to apply its election integrity policy to Census-related content. Facebook’s coming rule change will similarly mirror its stance toward campaigns, allowing the company’s reviewers to delete posts rather than simply down-rank them on the platform’s algorithm.
Lessons from 2016
“We’re using lessons we’ve learned from recent elections to protect the U.S. Census from any type of interference, including misinformation,” a spokesman said in a statement. “We’re also working closely with the Census Bureau and nonpartisan groups so that people see high-quality information about the upcoming Census.”
Google Spokesman Nu Wexler added in a statement that Google and YouTube are likewise committed “combating disinformation and fraudulent activities to help protect the integrity of the 2020 Census.”
While researchers agree that tech companies have improved policies and tools for quashing false information since 2016, evaluating their efforts in real time remains difficult.
Only Twitter publicizes datasets about disinformation operations. While Twitter, Google, and Facebook have all created databases for political advertising, they have significant limitations. Removing misinformation from platforms completely also prevents watchdogs from knowing what to look for.
“Getting them to commit to some sort of public reporting has yet to happen,” said Maria Filippelli, who researches technology and the Census for the liberal think tank New America. “Trying to make the jump from policy to product to evaluation has been trippy. They are big, huge firms, and getting those inter-departmental conversations is next to impossible.”
For all of Republicans’ newfound criticisms of tech companies, they don’t seem to share similar concerns around the Census. Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question, which failed after a court battle, could even prove to be fertile ground for misinformation.
It wouldn’t be the first time the government gave mixed messages about participating. In 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott both warned Americans to think twice about answering a “long form” version of the Census that they considered invasive of privacy.
Still, Terry Ao Minnis is holding her breath this time around. Senior director for Census programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, Minnis said she worries that the jump to digital could even exacerbate historic undercounts of communities like Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Her nonprofit is trying to ward off confusion by launching a dedicated Census website, holding monthly webinars, and publishing fact-checks in 23 Asian languages.
“It’s always better to prepare for a worst-case scenario and be pleasantly surprised by what ends up happening,” she said.
Cover: Joyce Dalbey, left, with the U.S. Census Bureau, talks to attendees at the Yuma Community Job & Education Fair inside the Yuma Civic Center about possible job opportunities with the federal agency, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Yuma, Ariz. (Randy Hoeft/The Yuma Sun via AP)