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Facebook, other social media sites pressured to protect census

Michael Macagnone, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress are increasing pressure on social media companies to protect next year's census from disinformation online, concerned that foreign governments and internet trolls could disrupt the 2020 enumeration.

The latest push comes in a letter the Congressional Asian-Pacific American Caucus sent Thursday to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, asking her to speak with group members about steps to both promote the census and "combat interference and disinformation on its platform." Russia or another country may try to push the census off course, they say, and Facebook and other companies should be prepared.

"We look forward to engaging with you and your team to ensure that (Asian American Pacific Islanders) and other vulnerable communities are not targeted by malicious actors on your platform," the letter said.

Congressional pressure on Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants over the census has added to growing concerns about the 2020 elections, political speech and privacy on the platforms. Lawmakers and experts worry that hostile agents may use social media platforms to throw off a process that determines the distribution of congressional seats and the flow of more than $800 billion in federal funding annually.

Facebook has drawn much of the scrutiny from Congress, since it was a focus of Russia's effort to derail the 2016 presidential election, according to reports by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee. That's not to say that other companies have escaped scrutiny.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, has pushed Google, Reddit and Twitter, in addition to Facebook, to explain how they would handle misinformation on their platforms.

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Social media companies "have a long way to go, but I feel like they are preliminarily satisfied that they understand the magnitude of the census," Schatz told CQ Roll Call. But he added: "I think they would agree they are not where they need to be."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, during a House hearing last month that the company would unveil new policies to remove false or misleading information from the platform "in the coming weeks."

"We're extending the current set of policies we have around voter suppression to a new census suppression policy too," Zuckerberg said. "We recognize this is important and rises above normal hoaxes or misinformation where we may allow someone to post it and mark it as potentially false by independent fact-checkers."

Census Bureau associate communications director Ali Ahmad on Thursday told the agency's National Advisory Committee that the agency plans to address disinformation on a "fairly granular level" with its social media partners next year.

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