Census relying on social media, advocates to stop bad info

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The U.S. Census Bureau is relying on outside help from social media companies, advocacy groups and other government agencies to halt campaigns that try to discourage people from participating in the once-a-decade head count through the spread of false information, officials said Thursday.

Because the decennial census takes place only once in every 10 years, some people may not be familiar with it. That can lend itself to misinformation and disinformation, said Stephen Buckner, an assistant director of communications at the bureau during a Facebook Live session. Misinformation is the unintentional spread of incorrect information. Disinformation is the deliberate spread of false information.

“It’s really, really important that we do it right,” Buckner said. “They’re are no do-overs, so when the numbers are out, there’s a 10 year process until the next count.”

The Census Bureau has formed a new “Trust & Safety” team of more than 20 agency staffers who will monitor social media and other platforms for false information about the 2020 census, and then respond swiftly to inaccuracies when needed.

In the past several months, several social media platforms — including Facebook and YouTube — have promised to clamp down on misleading information about the census. On Wednesday, Pinterest joined the effort in announcing it would remove misleading content about who can participate in the 2020 Census and about the 2020 elections.

“If we find a Pin or board that violates our policy, we’ll share it with the Census Bureau so that all the other platforms they’re working with can also take action on the content,” Pinterest public policy manager Aerica Shimizu Banks said in a statement. “Similarly, if the Bureau provides verified misinformation or disinformation to us, we’ll look for it on our platform and take anything we find down.”

The bureau also is relying on groups like the Better Business Bureau and AARP, and their consumer-protection hotlines, to gather reports on the spread of misleading information, as well as advocacy groups for minorities who may be at risk of being under-counted, said Zachary Schwartz, who is running operations for the bureau’s “Trust & Safety” team.

“They’re going to expand the bureau’s reach into these communities to make sure that when there is a rumor flying around … they can go right in there and put in authoritative content,” Schwartz said.

Members of the public also are being asked to email the bureau at rumors@census.gov if they encounter inaccurate information.

The 2020 census will help determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed and how many congressional seats each state gets. The count started earlier this month in rural Alaska. The rest of the nation won’t begin participating until mid-March. This is the first decennial census in which the Census Bureau is encouraging most people to fill out the questionnaire online, though people can still answer by telephone or by mailing in their forms.

Fake posts about the census began popping up days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that the Trump administration could not ask about citizenship status on the 2020 census. In another recent case, posts in neighborhood chat groups warned that robbers were scamming their way into people’s homes by asking to check residents’ identification for the census. That was a hoax, but it left Census Bureau officials scrambling to get the posts removed from Facebook.

Civil rights leaders worry that if misinformation discourages immigrants and minorities from participating in the census, it could leave those populations underrepresented in key government decisions for years.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

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