How Good Is Your Grasp of Census 2020? It Comes Down to Who You Trust Online

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Behind the scenes, the U.S. Census Bureau has been working with 340,000+ "partners" to identify, delete and counteract misinformation and disinformation about the 2020 count. (iStock)

The U.S. Census count is facing multiple unprecedented challenges this year. There's the coronavirus pandemic, of course, but also the way social media can amplify misinformation and disinformation about the census.

This is the first time people have been able to respond to the census online as well as by phone or mail. It’s also the first decennial count that's happening in an era when a huge number of Americans get their news — and, really, their understanding of reality — online.

So when somebody popular on Instagram posts mistaken information, things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

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"Often it starts with a micro-celebrity, newspaper or article or something that may have mentioned it," said Zack Schwartz, one of the leads of the U.S. Census Bureau's Trust and Safety Team.

"It’s people who are well-intentioned just not realizing the information they’re putting out is not accurate," said Schwartz. In an age when everyone considers themselves to be an expert, many don't hesitate to post unverified information.

So for instance, April 1 was not the deadline to respond to 2020 Census. That’s a classic example of misinformation the census team has been flagging this year and getting social media platforms to delete. The most common myths are posted on the bureau's dedicated rumors page.

Ahead of the census, the Trust and Safety Team reached out to more than 340,000 companies and organizations to sensitize them about common misconceptions. That includes tech titans like Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as thousands of local community groups.

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Misinformation Versus Disinformation

What's much harder to stamp out is disinformation. "Disinformation are those more coordinated attempts to deter people from participating in the census or push the count in a different direction," said Trust and Safety Team co-lead Steve Buckner.

Why would somebody want to deliberately mess with the count?

"Because there is so much at stake in terms of political apportionment in Congress, but also in terms of the billions and billions of dollars that state and local governments get every year, based on census counts," Buckner said.

For instance, a variety of conservative and even neo-Nazi pundits have been posting warnings that Democrats will unfairly benefit from non-citizens participating in the census. This, despite the fact that every count since the first one in 1790 has included non-citizens. The U.S. Constitution calls for a count of "Persons."

In late February, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk tweeted:

In addition to the huge reach of his Twitter feed, Kirk’s framing was quickly amplified on right-wing Facebook groups and pages, including Team Trump 2020, Fox News with Tucker Carlson and First Official Candace Owens Fan Club.

This public debate demonizing immigrants could scare them away from participating, according to Subbu Vincent, director of the Journalism and Media Ethics program at Santa Clara University.

"It’s hard to credibly dismiss a fear, which is a feeling, with thinking. Hard to use reason to dismiss it, especially when there are facts that show that the administration’s intent has been to deport people. Those facts have driven the fear," Vincent said.

The Census Bureau has historically relied on community leaders in hard-to-reach populations to carry the message of the count's importance, as well as to assure people their information won't be used against them.

"The human brain is actually wired to listen to other people. When you trust particular community leaders, when you trust particular political leaders, you’re more likely to listen to them, as opposed to just facts," Vincent said.

But if your social media feed is counteracting the messages you're receiving from your trusted leaders, or your feed is building upon a preexisting fear of authority, you might decide to sit this count out, despite the fact that the Census Bureau is legally barred from sharing your individual responses in any way that can identify you during your likely lifetime.

Buckner, of the U.S. Census, says the bureau has spent a lot of time building out its website to communicate what's true and debunk what's not. But the Trust and Safety Team is also proactively working with social media platforms to flag rumors and lies as they start to take shape.

Ultimately though, the platforms decide where to draw the line between what they consider attempts to skew the census count and legally protected political speech. They’ve all signed on to a strategy similar to the one they’re pursuing with the coronavirus pandemic: amplify credible sources and posts; delete or deprioritize non-credible ones.

Will those efforts be enough to support a complete and accurate count? We’ll only know when the census is done. Americans have until Aug. 14 to respond.