Facebook Cracks Down on Misleading Information About the 2020 US Census

Content from politicians is subject to the new restrictions as well

crowd of people in red with american flag and facebook logo in the background
Facebook will use a combination of human editors and machine learning to identify census-related content that may violate its policies. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images, Facebook

Politicians’ freedom to run ads and post content on Facebook without being subject to fact-checking apparently does have limits—when it comes to the 2020 U.S. census.

“Scammers, criminals, fraudsters, online trolls, unscrupulous opportunists and malicious actors are potential sources of disinformation that we expect to face with the 2020 census,” U.S. Census Bureau deputy director and COO Ron Jarmin wrote in a blog post earlier this week.

“Even benign misinformation carries significant risk,” Jarmin continued. “Urban legends spread faster online through social media than ever before, and sometimes, friendly supporters of the 2020 census and well-meaning groups accidentally spread misinformation when the information they have is incorrect.”

The social network outlined a comprehensive census interference policy Thursday, detailing its work with the Census Bureau, members of Congress and related experts.

Facebook established a multidisciplinary team across its product, engineering, policy, operations and legal branches to protect and promote participation in the census.

The social network’s vp of U.S. public policy (and former FCC chairman) Kevin Martin and head of civic engagement Samidh Chakrabarti said in a Newsroom post that Facebook’s community standards were updated to reflect the new protections for the 2020 U.S. census.

The new policy bans all kinds of misrepresentation about participating in the census, from facts (like dates, times and locations) to who is allowed to respond to census questions.

“We were happy to see the changes in Facebook’s terms of service that enable content to be taken down quickly,” U.S. Census Bureau assistant director of communications Stephen Buckner told Adweek. “A lot of the misinformation out here about the census is innocent enough that people don’t realize it and don’t know how to respond. We have to react quickly based on how quickly information spreads across social platforms.”

Facebook also introduced a new advertising policy banning ads that portray participating in the census process as “useless or meaningless,” or advising people not to take part.

Census-related ads will be subject to the same transparency requirements as political issue ads: Advertisers must complete Facebook’s authorization process for ads about social issues, elections or politics, and include disclaimers on their ads providing information on who paid for them. Those ads will be saved in the social network’s Ad Library for at least seven years.

Facebook said it will use a combination of humans and machine learning to identify content that may violate these policies, and a team of reviewers will then assess that content. Members of that team will have undergone training from consultants with expertise in the census.

The social network stressed that all content violating these policies will be removed from its platform, and that the newsworthiness exemption enjoyed by politicians elsewhere on its platform is not in play here.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on why it chose to subject politicians’ census-related content to fact checking, but not their content on other issues.

In cases where content does not specifically violate Facebook’s census interference policy but is determined to be potentially inaccurate, it will be reviewed by the social network’s third-party fact checkers and, if it is rated as false, it will be labeled as such and ranked lower in users’ News Feeds.

Facebook will also share accurate, nonpartisan information about how people can participate in the census, in consultation with the Census Bureau.

Martin and Chakrabarti said the company met with Census Bureau officials “multiple times” to brief them on its plans and coordinate their efforts, as well as to identify trusted partners to aid in the process of flagging potentially suppressive census content on Facebook and Instagram.

Local officials and Census Bureau partners have access to data from CrowdTangle, a tool the social network uses to track how content is spreading online.

Jarmin wrote that while the census only occurs every 10 years, it is used as the basis for key government decisions, adding, “An accurate count is important to everyone as it determines congressional representation for each state and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds back to states and local communities every year for critical public services and infrastructure.”


david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.
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