Census is Asking the Public to Help Fight Misinformation Ahead of 2020 

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The bureau launched a website for dispelling common Census rumors and created a special email address where people can report misinformation and other malicious activities.

The Census Bureau is enlisting the public to defend the 2020 census against misinformation campaigns and other nefarious activities that might discourage people from participating in the decennial count.

Last week, the bureau created a special email address—rumors@census.gov—where people can report any incorrect information or suspicious activities that they encounter surrounding the 2020 census directly to the bureau. Officials also stood up a new webpage that addresses common misconceptions around the census.

The new resources are part of a broader effort by the bureau and the national security community to protect the census from the types of misinformation campaigns that plagued the 2016 election.

Misinformation and other online influence campaigns are among the bureau’s biggest concerns in the run-up to the 2020 count. By sowing distrust among U.S. residents, adversaries could suppress participation in the census and distort the data that the government uses to distribute federal funds, allocate congressional seats and conduct a wide range of other activities.

To combat those efforts, Census officials are working alongside the intelligence community, Homeland Security Department and social media companies to monitor websites for signs of nefarious activity, according to Stephen Buckner, the bureau’s assistant associate director for communications. If they uncover any false information, the group races to debunk the statements before they reach a wider audience.

“Because of the speed at which information flows, [misinformation] can quickly gain traction,” Buckner said in a conversation with Nextgov. “The biggest thing you need to do is make sure you can identify any kind of false statements about [the census] ... and quickly get out factual content.”

But not all misinformation is nefarious. According to Buckner, most of the false content uncovered by the group so far was rooted in misunderstandings instead of malicious campaigns. Still, he added, it’s critical that agencies investigate the origin of the statements to see if they’re part of a more coordinated effort to sow distrust, and the new email portal will assist in those efforts.

When officials are tipped off to potential misinformation, the bureau and its partners will work to quickly correct the record and push out factual statements across social media and other digital channels, Buckner said. The group also plans to research false posts to determine if they warrant a stronger response, he said. 

Already, the bureau is making a concerted effort to assure the public that officials won’t share information they collect with law enforcement, a rumor that gained traction as the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire. The new webpage, titled Fighting 2020 Census Rumors, explicitly states that it’s illegal to share such information. The bureau plans to continue updating the page to dispel the rumors that arise as the 2020 count gets underway.

“We’re trying to give our general public, our partners, anybody that’s interested in the census several different avenues to reach us, to get factual information,” Buckner said.

Looking beyond misinformation campaigns, the 2020 census also faces a number of other tech-related threats. Federal officials fear delayed IT rollouts, shortened security tests and opaque cyber patching processes could leave the decennial vulnerable to system failures and digital attacks. The Government Accountability Office has included the 2020 count on its list of high-risk government programs since 2017.