Peters Urges Social Media Platforms to Combat Disinformation Targeting 2020 Census

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, today pressed leading social media and technology companies to provide details on their efforts to combat disinformation and misinformation campaigns surrounding the 2020 Census. Many technology companies have updated their policies regarding deceptive and inaccurate content about the census and pledged to work with the U.S. Census Bureau to identify and remove potentially damaging posts, but have not provided specific details on those plans. In letters to Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., Peters requested detailed information on how the tech giants plan to work with the Census Bureau to quickly and effectively address misleading and false census information on their platforms. The 2020 Census will determine how billions of dollars in federal resources and Congressional representation will be divided among the states for the next decade, including $29 billion for schools, roads and health care in Michigan communities.

“A significant threat to the census is the spread of incorrect information that could dissuade people from responding: both disinformation disseminated by bad actors, potentially including foreign adversaries, as well as misinformation unwittingly circulated by well-meaning individuals,” Peters wrote. “I am concerned about any inaccurate information that would discourage responses, such as misrepresentations about how individuals can participate, who is eligible to participate, or misleading statements that imply there will be negative consequences for participating.”

The Census Bureau has identified targeted disinformation campaigns designed to discourage participation in the 2020 Census as a serious threat to the integrity of the count. In anticipation of such threats, the Census Bureau established an internal task force to identify and combat the dissemination of false or misleading information that could negatively impact public trust in its upcoming population count. The Bureau plans to work closely with social-media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to identify and combat online efforts to disrupt the count or disseminate misleading information.

Peters is seeking detailed information on how the companies plan to communicate and share feedback with the Bureau’s task force, how companies plan to inform the public about measures they can take to combat disinformation, proactive efforts to encourage public participation in the 2020 Census, and plans to operationalize policies to detect and stop disinformation related to the census.

As Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the decennial Census, Peters has worked to ensure an accurate, on-time and cost-effective count of the American people. Peters led requests to secure $6.7 billion for the 2020 Census in FY 2020, including funding for robust community outreach, community assistance centers in hard to count areas, and contingency funding for emergencies such as natural disasters or cybersecurity events. Peters also secured an additional $3.8 billion for census operations in the 2019 government funding bill, and directed the Bureau to expand its targeted communications activities to ensure everyone is counted. Earlier this month, Peters pressed the Bureau on its outreach plans for hard-to-count communities during the 2020 Census.

Text of Peters’ letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is copied below and available here. Also available are Peters’ letters to Twitter, Google, and the Census Bureau.

February 26, 2020

 

Mr. Mark Zuckerberg
Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Facebook, Inc.
1 Hacker Way
Menlo Park, CA 94025

 

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

I am contacting you regarding efforts to combat disinformation and misinformation about the 2020 Census.  The outcome of the Decennial Census is crucial for every individual and family. It will help determine the allocation of resources for health care, education, infrastructure, and other community needs, as well as representation in Congress.  Each household must be able to easily and confidently respond to the census knowing that their personal information is safe and their participation is important.

A significant threat to the census is the spread of incorrect information that could dissuade people from responding: both disinformation disseminated by bad actors, potentially including foreign adversaries, as well as misinformation unwittingly circulated by well-meaning individuals.  I am concerned about any inaccurate information that would discourage responses, such as misrepresentations about how individuals can participate, who is eligible to participate, or misleading statements that imply there will be negative consequences for participating.

As you know, the Census Bureau has established a “Trust and Safety Team” that coordinates with private sector technology and social media platforms like yours, as well as with partner and stakeholder organizations, and cybersecurity officials to protect the 2020 Census and ensure the public receives accurate information.  This team will monitor “available channels and open platforms for misinformation and disinformation about the census” while working with partners and stakeholders to quickly respond to any identified issues.  The Census Bureau is also encouraging the public to report suspicious information to rumors@census.gov to help ensure the Bureau can respond quickly and appropriately to false 2020 Census information.

I understand you are working with the Census Bureau in its efforts to combat the spread of disinformation and misinformation. In December 2019, Facebook announced “a new census interference policy that bans misleading information” on its platforms and “a new advertising policy that prohibits ads that portray census participation as useless or meaningless or advise people not to participate in the census.” It also stated Facebook has “met with Census officials multiple times to brief them on our plans and coordinate with them to disrupt census interference.”

I am encouraged to know that you are working with the Bureau and would like to request additional information  to better understand your efforts to ensure disinformation and misinformation are addressed quickly and effectively to protect individuals and families who will take part in the census. 

Your company is in a unique position to support the Bureau’s fight against disinformation and misinformation throughout the 2020 Census, including during efforts to raise awareness before the census; during the self-response operation beginning in March, where every household will be urged to respond; and during the Nonresponse Follow-up operation in May through July, when enumerators will visit non-responding households.  It is essential that Congress and the public understand this crucial census operation, and your company plays a key role. 

To better understand how you are working to detect and prevent disinformation and misinformation and ensure individuals and families can have confidence in a complete and accurate census, I request your response to the following questions by March 12, 2020:

  • What processes and procedures have you developed for ensuring information sharing and feedback between your company and the Bureau’s Trust and Safety team to help combat disinformation and misinformation, including:

    • processes and procedures for sharing useful information and analysis about observed disinformation and misinformation; and

    • process and procedures for coordinating public communications with the Bureau, to ensure timely and organized responses to disinformation and misinformation threats?

  • How do you plan to inform the public about measures they can take to combat misinformation and disinformation on your platforms? 
  • Are you taking any additional measures to encourage public participation in the 2020 Census?

  • What steps have you taken to help civil society organizations, state and local governments, or other partners identify misinformation and disinformation on your platforms?

  • What training are you offering for relevant employees on your census-specific policies, to ensure consistent implementation across your platforms?

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