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Putting 2020 census rumors to rest

Posted Feb. 12, 2020

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graphic promoting the census
For the first time, residents will be able to respond to the census online, by phone or by mail.

Every decade, technology plays a greater role in the way the census is conducted. But in 2020, the first time anyone who wants to respond to the census online has that option, the greatest change may come from the way all of us use technology.

For the first time during a decennial census, the majority of people in the United States are using digital and social media in their everyday lives.

“The rise of digital and social media use has exponentially increased the speed of how accurate and inaccurate information can spread,” said Stephen Buckner, assistant director for communications at the U.S. Census Bureau. “We know that many people may not know what the census is because it happens only every 10 years, making it a likely target for misinformation and disinformation campaigns, which is why we’ve been actively preparing to defend against them.”

The Census Bureau is ready for these challenges.

To prevent the spread of fake, false and inaccurate information that can negatively influence 2020 Census participation and response, the Census Bureau has established the government’s first Trust and Safety Team to protect the count.

What the Census Bureau is doing:

  • Working with social media platforms such as Facebook, Microsoft, Nextdoor, Google and Pinterest to update their policies and terms of service to include census-specific activities.
  • Coordinating with YouTube and Twitter to create processes enabling the bureau to quickly identify and respond to misinformation and disinformation.
  • Collaborating with other government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission to protect everyone, especially the elderly, from scammers pretending to represent the Census Bureau.
  • Working with civil society organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and NALEO Educational Fund to ensure they have the resources necessary to combat misinformation and disinformation in targeted communities and promote participation in the 2020 Census.
  • Working with the Better Business Bureau and AARP to protect consumers against possible scams and fraud during the count.

These partnerships will help the Census Bureau counter false information that can lead to an undercount by quickly identifying phony information and respond with factual content.

Why social media matters

More consumers than ever now receive their information from nontraditional sources. In fact, over the past few years, more people reported receiving their news from social media than from newspapers.

According to Pew Research, only 43% of people in the United States used social media during the last census in 2010, compared to 72% today.

You may dismiss what happens on social media, but an analysis by the National Institutes of Health shows it can influence our real-world behavior.

For example, imagine someone posts a message saying you are not required to respond to the census and should ignore all attempts to be counted. Or they share a post that suggests the Census Bureau will share your private data even though public disclosure is prohibited by law.

The person posting such misinformation might be a trusted friend or family member who has shared the post with their friends and followers. The number of people who may, as a result, think that responding to the census is not required or become worried about privacy grows rapidly.

The post could spread, possibly leading to low census participation and an inaccurate count or undercount of certain population groups.

The Census Bureau is ready

The stakes are high. Census results help communities get their fair share of billions of dollars in federal funds for schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs every year. The decennial census also helps determine congressional representation.

The Census Bureau will protect the count but can not do it alone. You can help make a real difference in the outcome.

How? Report inaccurate, suspicious or fraudulent information to the Census Bureau:

  • Report suspicious information and tips.
  • Reach out on verified social media accounts (@USCensusBureau) to ask questions and flag suspicious information.
  • Call the Census Bureau Customer Service Hotline at 1-800-923-8282 to report suspicious activity.

The 2020 Census will have implications for years to come. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure there is an accurate count.

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