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Facebook, other social media sites pressured to protect census

Michael Macagnone, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

"The biggest thing about our partners already, though, is their ability to be a set of eyes and ears where the census is not, and in some places cannot be, to try to catch that misinformation and disinformation before it even gets to the level of a few social media posts," Ahmad said.

However the agency will keep a pool of its paid advertising budget as a contingency to push positive messages if disinformation gets out of hand.

Several experts watching the census process have said it could be vulnerable to outside manipulation, particularly Russia or other foreign governments. Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson fears targeted attacks on specific populations could suppress participation.

"If something gets a bit of traction it could discourage a lot of different population groups from participating in the census," he said.

But interference in the census may not only come from abroad.

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund, a census outreach partner, said Trump's unsuccessful effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census may spill out online during next year's count.

 

"I'm expecting the president to use his Twitter platform to say who should be counted and who should not be counted," Vargas told CQ Roll Call. "I don't know if (census officials) are going to be prepared to handle that."

Ben Dubow, founder and chief technology officer of Omelas, a strategic communication company, said his company has monitored efforts to spread disinformation on social media platforms, frequently by entities tied to Russia.

Over the past few years, "I've been constantly disappointed how slow (platforms) have been at acting to contain the spread of misinformation," Dubow said. He noted that "the Russian government since 2014 has only grown more extreme" in its tactics.

It's unlikely that any foreign power would give up on a juicy target like the 2020 census, according to Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. A hostile agent can "claim a cheap political win by engaging in certain tactics online" against the United States, he said.

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