Households don’t need to fill out the 2020 census before receiving a coronavirus stimulus check from the IRS — part of the $2 trillion spending bill President Donald Trump signed into law last week.
But enough people heard this rumor, and thought it was true, that the Census Bureau has since corrected the record.
In a March 20 post, the bureau reminded households that their answers to the 2020 census “cannot be used to impact your eligibility for any government benefits, including any potential stimulus package.”
“You might think that that’s a good thing, that that’s going to encourage people to respond to the census,” Zack Schwartz, the deputy division chief of the Census Bureau’s communications directorate, said about the stimulus-check rumor. “But really, that’s a huge concern for us in many populations throughout the country, because they may believe that the Census Bureau is sharing information with the Treasury Department or other federal agencies about who did and who did not complete the 2020 census.”
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While the bureau publishes anonymous, statistical information about the decennial count, under federal law, the response data is confidential and the bureau cannot share it with any agency.
Nearly every household in the U.S. has received a request in the mail by now to fill out the 2020 census, and so far, more than 36% of households have complete the decennial count.
But in order to optimize self-response, Schwartz said that the bureau has launched a robust effort to weed out misleading or false information about the 2020 count.
Schwartz said that misinformation makes up the “vast majority” of the untrue statements that the bureau has found online, rather than disinformation campaigns perpetrated by nation-state actors and armies of online bots.
But even without malicious intent, misinformation, if left unchecked, could decrease self-response rates, which would, in turn, increase the need for the bureau to send enumerators door-to-door to follow-up with households that didn’t complete the census questionnaire.
“Every 10 years the decennial census occurs, which leaves a lot of time for people to not remember exactly what it is, why it’s important and who can participate,” Schwartz said. “It leaves the door open, unfortunately, to some misinformation and disinformation that can occur around the census that certainly can spread online.”
The bureau spent much of the past decade preparing for more conventional threats. It’s worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community on cybersecurity concerns.
And to support the first decennial count where every household can respond online, the bureau built a self-response site that can handle a level of traffic much higher than what the bureau anticipates.
But the bureau has taken more recent steps to combat misinformation. Last year, it stood up a Trust & Safety Team and has partnered with the software company Sprinklr to flag and correct misinformation posted online.
Sprinklr uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to scan all public social media posts for misinformation that the bureau and its partners can respond to and correct.
Grad Conn, Sprinklr’s chief marketing officer, said the algorithm is trained on a 16-petabyte database comprised of every public social media post from the last five years.
“That allows us to essentially pull billions of conversations. For the Census Bureau, that’s why AI becomes so important, because you could never possibly obviously go through that as a human,” Conn said.
Through AI-enabled “smart alerts,” Sprinklr can also help the bureau monitor when disinformation posts gain too much traction.
Despite the malicious intent of disinformation campaigns, Conn said the easiest, most effective way to combat malicious disinformation campaigns is to ignore them.
“With the overt disinformation, sometimes not engaging is the right strategy, because when you engage, it brings that content to the top of the feed, and when you don’t engage, that just starts to disappear in the feed,” he said.
Disinformation, however, can become a misinformation threat when it’s folded into mainstream conversations and social media influencers begin to share it.
Just last weekend, the bureau received an alert about a major influencer on Instagram who had posted misinformation about the census and stimulus checks.
In response, the bureau reached out to the influencer and their staff to update the post with accurate information.
“We’ve seen an unbelievable drop in the number of conversations happening about the Census in the stimulus check and the rumor that was going around about it,” Schwartz said.
The bureau has also worked with third-party fact-checkers track down misleading posts about stimulus checks and have Facebook remove misleading content.
The bureau has reached agreements with several social media companies that allow those platforms to flag and remove inaccurate content that would discourage users from responding to the 2020 census. These agreements also allow the bureau and social media platforms to update posts with accurate information.
But beyond the social media monoliths like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the bureau has also worked with sites like Nextdoor to take down thousands of inaccurate posts about the census.
Flagging posts and correcting information still requires having a human in the loop, however, especially when flagging unstructured data like social media posts.
“People may talk about both the census and the [coronavirus] pandemic at the same time, not because they’re associated, but because they’re having a conversation about all the things they’re doing this week,” Conn said.
However, social media isn’t just a liability for the Census Bureau to manage, it’s also a platform where the agency and its partners can communicate the positive impact the decennial count can have on communities.
And in that case, influencers can also amplify that message.
Singer-songwriter John Legend, for example, recently tweeted about a web browser issue he encountered filling out the census questionnaire on his iPhone.
Please do this if you can. I filled out the census online Sunday. One little glitch though. When I was using Safari, the census form kept inexplicably kicking me back to the beginning of the questionnaire at a certain point. But then I used Chrome and it was fine. https://t.co/jcPbNJ2J2K
— John Legend (@johnlegend) March 18, 2020
Since then, he’s helped get the message out about the benefits of filling out the census.
“With John Legend, we were able to quickly troubleshoot with him some browser issues that he was having and make sure that people understood the importance of utilizing the right browser and what may be the best one to have,” Schwartz said. “Those are the kinds of posts that we want to pick up. We want to understand who’s having issues, what are some of the questions or concerns that you may have about process is completing the census.”