'It's a fine target': Census bureau to fight misinformation

Worried about internet trolls and foreign powers spreading false news, census officials are preparing to battle misinformation campaigns for the first time in the count's 230-year history.

The stakes are huge. Who participates in the 2020 census count could influence how U.S. congressional seats and billions of federal tax dollars to educate children, help low-income families and pave new roads are divvied up.

"It's a fine target," former U.S. Census Bureau director John Thompson said of the form, which is sent every decade to households in America to count the population. "If you want to disrupt a democracy, you can certainly go about it by disrupting a census."

Already, false and inaccurate social media posts about the census have begun to appear online, where they have been viewed thousands of times. Foremost on everyone's mind are the misinformation wars waged during the last presidential election to confuse U.S. voters.

Fake posts about the census began popping up days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Trump administration could not ask about citizenship status on the 2020 census: Conservative bloggers, Twitter users and pundits falsely blamed former President Barack Obama for scrubbing the question from the form in 2010. In fact, the main census form hasn't included a citizenship question since 1950, and the bureau's own analysis found it would discourage people from participating, possibly skewing results.

And last month, sham posts popped up warning online neighborhood chat groups that robbers were scamming their way into people's homes by asking to check residents' identification for the upcoming census. The online hoax left Census Bureau officials scrambling to get the post removed from Facebook, concerned that census workers who were knocking doors to verify addresses could face trouble.

Cyber and census experts worry that trolls and foreign governments will sow more confusion to discourage people from participating in the census, either for political reasons or to game the allocation of resources.

Their main targets? Major U.S. internet platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, according to Dipayan Ghosh, the co-director of Harvard Kennedy School's digital platforms and democracy project.

"In terms of the bad actors that are pushing this type of content -- absolutely, foreign parties, particularly Russia and China, are concerns in the case of the census, as well as domestic operators," Ghosh added.

Government officials spend years preparing for each census, but the extent of Russia's misinformation campaign during the last presidential elections -- inaccurate and divisive images, posts and stories on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter that often went viral -- wasn't really understood until 2017.

That's when Census Bureau leaders began to wonder if the 2020 census could be the next target, Thompson said.

"We were aware of the potential by the time I left," said Thompson, who resigned from his post in June 2017. "We hadn't gotten much further than that."

As a first line of defense, census officials have spent months forging relationships with dozens of technology companies that keep close guard on their massive datasets and proprietary information.

The bureau now works directly with all major platforms -- Facebook, Twitter and Google -- to help inform people about the mechanics of the census and to stamp out inaccurate information that's swirling around.

"We can communicate with them quickly and try to resolve, whether it's on public forums or in closed groups," said Zack Schwartz, the deputy division chief for the Census Bureau's Center for New Media & Promotion.

Both Facebook and Google have told The Associated Press they will set up teams dedicated to stopping misinformation about the census.

Facebook will use a mix of people and artificial intelligence to spot, review and remove troublesome posts. CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress on Wednesday that the company would soon release a new census policy similar to its election rules, which prohibit false content about voting hours, location and registration on its site.

"We recognize this is important and this rises above normal hoaxes or misinformation," Zuckerberg said.

Similarly, Twitter will use artificial intelligence and employees to spot and remove misleading posts about the census. It will also rely on users to report census misinformation.

The bureau is also working with technology companies to create automated answers to questions about the census on voice-assisted devices such as Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri, Schwartz said. Bureau officials have consulted with Google to identify terms that will help guide internet searchers to official census sites.

There are precedents for such partnerships. Many Silicon Valley companies have worked with governments to manage emergency preparedness, anti-vaccine misinformation and protect voter registration rights.

At the same time, a team of more than a dozen census employees are monitoring social media, scanning for bad tweets and Facebook posts. The bureau will publish its own fact checks on a dedicated "rumors" page.

Still, challenges remain.

Debunking misinformation is harder when it's spread through closed sites, such as private Facebook groups.

Such was the case with the warnings of robbers posing as census officials, which spread widely on Facebook and Nextdoor, a social networking site where residents can share messages with neighbors privately.

"Send this on your neighborhood group chat," claimed the posts, which the Census Bureau believes are fabricated. "They are everywhere and they look presentable. Please alert your family and friends."

In Missouri, people continued to share the post even after a local police department declared on Facebook and Nextdoor that no such crimes had been reported.

Stopping people from sharing fake information on social media sites even after it's been debunked is a never-ending battle, said Clifford Lampe, a professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

Just as tech companies and government agencies find new ways of fighting misinformation, trolls find new ways of spreading it, he said.

"There's no process by which we can wage a sustained campaign around fighting disinformation," he said, "because it keeps changing."