The U.S. Census Bureau is buying up URLs to combat disinformation

By Rina Raphael

The U.S. is asking tech giants for their help to counter the next fake news blitz.

Reuters reports that the U.S. Census Bureau approached Google, Facebook, and Twitter to assist in fending off disinformation that could impact its 2020 count.

Supposedly, officials are concerned right-wing groups might mimic fake news strategies from the 2016 presidential election to dissuade minorities and immigrants from participating in the once-per-decade census. They could, for example, tell them it’s not important or that they already completed the survey simply by paying their taxes.

The bureau has also acquired 20 to 30 look-alike Census websites that could be used to spread fear or false information targeted at certain groups during the survey, which will be the first to be conducted largely online. Reuters reports that the bureau controls at least two non-government websites with “census” in their name— and

Ron Jarmin, deputy director of the Census Bureau, confirmed that the agency is working with tech companies, noting, “We expect that [the census] will be a target for those sorts of efforts in 2020.” The effort follows warnings by cybersecurity experts dating back to 2016, Reuters reports:

The sources, who asked not to be named, said evidence included increasing chatter on platforms like “4chan” by domestic and foreign networks keen to undermine the survey. The census, they said, is a powerful target because it shapes U.S. election districts and the allocation of more than $800 billion a year in federal spending.

While the bureau did not cite specific partnerships, Reuters says it’s reviewed documents that implicate commitments from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Twitter, and Facebook.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone confirmed meetings with Census, but Twitter and Google declined to comment.

Many have already worried about technical and political challenges to the 2020 Census, including the shift to an online survey and the Trump administration’s push to ask respondents, for the first time since 1950, whether they are U.S. citizens. The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on the citizen question next month.

The changes to the survey “are introducing unprecedented new challenges,” Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently. “The stakes are high for cities and regions, which depend on a full and accurate count of their populations to ensure their fiscal health and political strength.”


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