It’s not fake news: the US Census Bureau is worried that “online misinformation” might end up the country’s 2020 census results, and is for that reason joining the ranks of those who have made it their business to fight “trolls and foreign governments” wreaking havoc on the internet.
The question, however, quickly becomes what interest “trolls and foreign governments” have in influencing the results of a US census – and equally importantly, how that can be achieved by means of online misinformation. The AP says that “the stakes are huge” and suggests that the motive would be to “undermine democracy.”
The way of doing this, meanwhile, would be by using social media giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter “to discourage people from participating in the census, either for political reasons or to game the allocation of resources.”
And you won’t be surprised to learn at whom the finger’s pointed: “Russia and China as well as domestic operators,” said Dipayan Ghosh, of the Harvard Kennedy School.
The AP report notes that “fake posts about the census began popping up days after the US Supreme Court ruled in June that the Trump administration could not ask about citizenship status on the 2020 census.” This question, it is suggested, might discourage people from participating.
This is the first time in its 230 years of history that the Census Bureau has felt that fake news have the power to influence the census results – but how exactly will the institution fight these powerful foreign forces, aided by “domestic operators”?
The Bureau is teaming up with Facebook, Google, and Twitter and working with them directly, the report explains.
The goal is “to help inform people about the mechanics of the census and to stamp out inaccurate information that’s swirling around.”
“We can communicate with them quickly and try to resolve, whether it’s on public forums or in closed groups,” Bureau’s Zack Schwartz revealed.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg probably had little choice but to agree that this is a real problem, and he intends to be solving it the same way his company is trying to solve any moderation and/or censorship puzzle: by combining algorithms with human moderators to detect unwanted content and block it.
Twitter plans to do the same, while the Bureau will work with Apple and Amazon to include its messages in the questions-and-answers format in these companies’ voice assistants, Alexa and Siri.
But, the report concedes, all this is going to be a challenge. “Closed sites,” i.e., private groups such as those on Facebook represent one, and another is the inability to control people in such a way that would stop them from sharing content they want to share – even if they’ve been told that it’s fake.