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.
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.
“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.
Keeping the census on track
Though social media remains a potential avenue for interference, Census Bureau officials still view those platforms as outreach partners.
This week, a group of 57 House Democrats, including Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and acting Oversight and Reform Committee chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., called on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to address misinformation on the platform.
“Misinformation campaigns to discourage any American, including targeted demographic groups, from participating in our national count would be an attack on our democracy with potentially far-reaching consequences for decades to come,” they said in their letter.
Dorsey recently announced Twitter would ban political advertising on the platform. Last year the company launched a database of what it believed was all of the foreign operations launched on Twitter, which it has periodically expanded.
“The behavior is against our values as a company. For our part, we are learning, evolving, and building a technological and personnel-driven approach to combating it,” a Twitter spokesperson said.
The plan Zuckerberg promised last month has been in the works for months. Facebook’s Sandberg said in a June blog post the company would take the prospect of a census disinformation campaign seriously. The company promised updates in the fall about how it will handle census misinformation on its platform.
“That’s why we’re going to treat next year’s census like an election — with people, policies and technology in place to protect against census interference, Sandberg said in her blog post.
At a September Congressional Hispanic Caucus event, a Facebook spokesman said the company was looking to change its algorithms to better address misinformation and disinformation, which would be tied to upcoming policy changes.
And in October, the forum website Reddit hosted a series of AMAs, “ask me anything” posts, with census experts.
Representatives for Google, LinkedIn and other social media companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Efforts by the various companies so far have not seemed to have done much, said Clifford Lampe, a University of Michigan School of Information professor the spread of disinformation on social networks.
“I don’t think they are doing any harm, I just don’t think they are trying to do any particular thing to help” stop misinformation, he said.
All of those companies have been in some form of contact about their efforts with lawmakers like Schatz.
“Although the letters they wrote me are fine, we don’t have any evidence of implementation yet,” he said. “So it’s a decent first step but we have a long way to go.”