Census is Preparing to Fight Social Media Misinformation Campaigns

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Bad actors could use 2016 election interference tactics to suppress response rates in the 2020 count, said Deputy Director Ron Jarmin.

The Census Bureau expects bad actors to target the 2020 count with the same online misinformation tactics that plagued the 2016 election, and it’s building a plan to fight back, said the bureau’s second-in-command.

Misinformation is one of officials’ biggest concerns in the run-up to the decennial count, according to Census Deputy Director Ron Jarmin. By spreading false information through social media, he said, adversaries could suppress participation in the 2020 count, just as they did in the last presidential race.

“This is a new problem for Census, much like it was a new problem for elections,” Jarmin said Wednesday in an interview with Nextgov at the ESRI Federal GIS conference.

The government relies on census data to allocate seats in Congress, distribute federal funds and conduct numerous other critical operations. If adversaries discouraged certain groups from participating, they would sway the democratic process for the next decade.

On Tuesday, federal intelligence chiefs warned Congress that Russia and other adversaries have continued their efforts to sow discord in the U.S. through online platforms. Jarmin said it’s likely those ongoing campaigns could soon begin targeting the census, which will be conducted in the middle of a contentious presidential election.

To combat those efforts, the bureau is working closely with tech companies, marketing firms and federal agencies to ensure people receive accurate information about the decennial count. The hope, Jarmin said, is to “overwhelm” any false information that makes people think twice about participating.

“The underbelly of our democracy is based on good numbers about the population,” he said. “We need to make sure people know that” and approach any claims to the contrary with suspicion.  

Beyond misinformation, tech and cybersecurity remain major concerns for Census officials as they finalize preparations for 2020. Budgetary shortcomings, botched field tests and delayed IT testing have plagued the agency in recent years and led many to worry the bureau won’t be adequately prepared for the decennial.

Because Congress appropriated extra funds to the bureau last year, Jarmin said 2020 preparations were largely unaffected by the recent government shutdown. The bureau has also devoted additional resources to catching up on delayed IT rollouts, he said, and officials were still able to work out many of the kinks in the tech despite limited field testing.

The delays also forced officials to drastically reduce the amount of time they spent testing the cybersecurity of the IT systems, though Jarmin said the bureau is working with federal agencies and industry partners to bolster the tech against digital threats.

“[Cyber] is a huge area of focus for us,” he said. “You can always find that there was something else you could do, but ... with the time and the money that we have, we do as much as we can.”