It's not only an election year next year, it's also a census year, and Facebook is saying that it plans to treat the census like a high-profile election — only in this case it will actually take down ads that spread lies.
Contrary to Mark Zuckerberg's ongoing and firm stance about not fact-checking or censoring political ads on the platform, Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg says they do plan to do battle against disinformation campaigns pertaining to the census — which is as powerful a political tool as they come. As the Washington Post reports, Facebook is gearing up to squelch efforts both foreign and domestic to interfere with the census and discourage people from participating.
"If your goal is to undermine trust in government, the census is a perfect lever for that," says Alex Howard, an open government advocate, speaking to the Post. Howard was one of the attendees of a summit hosted by Facebook last month in its Washington offices, which was also attended by officials with the U.S. Census Bureau and employees of other big tech firms including Google.
The government-led population count is a driver for myriad allocations in government programs, for allocation of congressional representation, as well as for private companies' marketing strategies and a million other aspects of American political and economic life. And since its beginnings, it has inspired distrust in certain corners of the country — something that the conspiracy-theory-prone are guaranteed to latch onto as census forms and census takers begin fanning out around the country in the first quarter of next year.
President Trump and his Republican cronies made their own play to discourage census participation this year by fighting to put a question about citizenship on the standard census form. That effort was blocked this summer by the Supreme Court, but only really on a technicality — the five-justice majority ruled that the administration had not provided ample justification for putting the question on the form. Nonetheless, the question was still being asked on test forms sent out by the Census Bureau, and it was widely seen as discouraging immigrant populations from participating in the count — even though the Bureau is legally bound not to share information like citizenship status with law enforcement. The result of a test by the Bureau found that self-response rates hovered around 52 percent regardless of whether the question appeared on forms, though response rates for people who identified as Hispanic were down just slightly.
Experts believe that Russia may want to interfere with the census next year for the same reasons that Republicans do — to keep Republicans, and Donald Trump, in power. Discouraging participation among minority or immigrant populations would almost certainly have negative political impacts on Democratic states and regions — though the broader consequences could be far more serious than an election here or an extra congressperson there. Federal funds for housing, education, healthcare, and more are tied to census numbers, and undercounts will lead to areas with high immigrant populations getting less funding for vital services.
The fear is that micro-targeted Facebook ads could spread rumors and lies about the census-taking process, and create distrust of what is supposed to be a simple, non-partisan headcount.
Other companies besides Facebook are ostensibly joining the fight against disinformation about the census, though what steps they're taking remain unclear. Alphabet spokesperson Nu Wexler tells the Post that the company and its subsidiary YouTube are "committed to combating disinformation and fraudulent activities to help protect the integrity of the 2020 Census." And Census Bureau officials say they are in communication with Twitter as well.
The 2020 Census will be the first census to take place in the height of the social media age, and this is why everyone is so worried. The Bureau has launched this site answering frequently asked questions like "do non-citizens get counted?", and there's an email hotline set up for reporting falsehoods and rumors about the census: [email protected].
This census will able to be filled out online, by phone, or by mail.