Facebook drops Trump ads after Pelosi cites census confusion

Facebook on Thursday began taking down ads for the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump that direct people to a survey labeled a “census,” hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said people would confuse it with the once-a-decade head count.

Facebook said in a statement that it was enforcing its policies to prevent confusion over the 2020 census, which begins next week for most people.

“There are policies in place to prevent confusion around the official U.S. Census and this is an example of those being enforced,” the Facebook statement said.

Earlier in the day, Pelosi had called the survey sponsored by the Trump reelection campaign, “an absolute lie.”

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“A lie that is consistent with the misrepresentation policy of Facebook,” Pelosi said. “But now they’re messing with who we are as Americans. I know the profit motive is their business model, but it should not come at the cost of counting who is in our country.”

The ad says, “President Trump needs you to take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today.” Clicking on a red button saying “Take the Survey” leads to a website with questions asking visitors about party affiliation, whether they intend to support Trump and which media organizations they get their information, among other questions.

Similar mailings have been distributed around the U.S.

On Thursday, four Democratic House members — Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Gerry Connolly of Virginia, and Katie Porter of California — demanded in a letter that the Republican National Committee stop any mailings or online ads that resemble Census Bureau documents.

In a statement, the Republican National Committee said it would add language to future mailings, making it clear what it is.

“This is a standard direct mail piece that has been utilized for decades. These mailers are fully compliant with the law, clearly marked as a fundraising solicitation from the Republican National Committee, and in no way resemble the official government census,” the RNC statement said.

Census Bureau officials have been on high alert for online misinformation aimed at confusing people about who is eligible to fill out the form or how to properly file it, along with imitation websites posing as the official census site.

The bureau has spent the last year forging relationships with the major tech platforms — Facebook, Twitter and Google — to put out accurate information about how the census works and yank misinformation about the form from their sites.

In January, Facebook began banning ads that discourage people from participating in the census or portray it as “useless.” The ban applies to ads on both Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns. The platform also announced that misleading posts about the census would be subject to removal. Typically, the platform does not remove false or misleading content from its site, unless it gives wrong information about voting.

The Trump campaign on Tuesday began running different versions of the census ad on Facebook across the country from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s official Facebook page. The campaign purchased thousands of the online ads that were viewed thousands of times before Facebook began removing them Thursday.

Former Census Bureau director John Thompson said the Trump campaign has put a new spin on an old campaign strategy: For years, Republicans have sent fundraising mailers that mimic the census.

Although it’s hard to tell if those tactics have had any impact on the response rate to the census, Thompson said “the less confusion, the better” when it comes to the once-every-decade survey.

Trump’s ads and the Republican mailers could dupe some people into thinking they’ve already filled out the official census form, and if there’s any consequence at all, it could be that the move backfires on Trump’s own supporters, Thompson said.

“I don’t know that they would want to have confusion,” said Thompson, who served in the Obama administration. “It could have a reverse impact on the Trump administration, (it) could create an under-representation of their constituents in the census.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S Senate, Democratic senators told U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, they felt misled by his testimony almost two years ago on the origins of a failed citizenship question. Ross was testifying Thursday before the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration last summer from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 questionnaire. The administration had said the question was being added to aid the Justice Department in enforcing a law that protects minority voters’ access to the ballot box. But the high court said the administration’s justification for the question “seems to have been contrived.”

Opponents argued it would have intimidated immigrants, Hispanics and others from participating in the once-a-decade head count that determines how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is allocated and how many congressional seats each state gets.

“Your statements were totally false,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told Ross during the hearing. “There is now an avalanche of evidence showing you repeatedly pressured both the Justice Department and the Census Bureau for nearly a year to support adding the question.”

Ross denied misleading the senators.

“”My statements were correct then. They were true then. They are correct now. They are true now,” Ross said.

Leahy responded, “The evidence we’ve seen shows they were not true.”

This is the first census in which the Census Bureau is encouraging most people to answer the questionnaire online, although people can still answer the questions by telephone or by mailing in a paper form. Residents can start answering the form next Thursday.

Separately, a federal judge in Maryland on Thursday denied a request for a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit the NAACP had filed against the Census Bureau, claiming its preparations for the 2020 census were inadequate. The NAACP wanted the judge to compel the bureau to hire more census takers in the field and open more field offices in hard to count communities.

“Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that if the census proceeds as planned, there will be a differential undercount of the magnitude they fear, or if I were to order the funds spent as they want, the 2020 census would not produce an equal or worst undercount for hard-to-count communities,” U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm wrote.

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Schneider reported from Orlando, Florida. Amanda Seitz reported from Chicago.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

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