In the United States, a big question for 2020 is a simple one: who lives in the country? It’s also a fraught one. As the decennial census approaches, its organizers, demographers, and various advocacy groups are working to get everyone counted to ensure accurate representation in government, among other things. It could be a tough task.
Why the census is important
The census happens once every ten years, and it’s used to determine the shape and size of electoral districts as their population shifts. A changed count can mean an area loses or gains seats in government. The count can also help with the allocation of money to communities, such as on infrastructure or public services, or to help businesses decide their local strategies.
What are the census basics
There are only nine questions on the census. They ask very basic demographic questions: who lives in the household; how they are related; their age, sex, and race; whether they own or rent their house; and their phone number. A sample census questionnaire is available on the census website. There is no question about citizenship, political affiliation, banking information, or social security number. The answers are completely confidential under federal law. The census started in remote Alaska on Jan 21 and in March households in the rest of the country will get mail from the Census Bureau, which is part of the US Department of Commerce, informing them how they can respond to census questions. By April 1, designated as Census Day, every household in the US should receive invitations to participate in the census. Respondents will be able to fill the form out online—a first!—by phone, snail mail, or, in some cases, in person.
What’s going against it
The goal of the census is to count everyone living in the United States. But there are a number of reasons to anticipate an undercount, said Mark Fossett, director of the Texas Federal Statistical Research Data Center and professor at Texas A&M University. Trust in government institutions—the Census being one of them—is much weaker than it used to be. What’s more, technology has made survey-taking much cheaper and easier than ever before, which means that anyone and everyone, including countless marketers and scammers, can call people up with questionnaires, causing a sort of survey fatigue.
Then there is the intensity of political rhetoric and anti-immigration sentiment of the last several years. These contribute to fears about whether it’s safe for immigrants or undocumented people to answer census questions (it is). What didn’t help was the mess around the citizenship question, which the Trump administration wanted to add to the census but which the Supreme Court shot down earlier this year. But rumors that the question will be added to the census persist, said Anita Banerji of the Illinois-based nonprofit Forefront, which does census outreach. “There are communities, particularly communities of color, immigrant families, undocumented families, mixed status, families that are fearful of filling out the census because they do think the question is going to be on there.”
What’s more, all of this is happening in an informational universe very different from previous censuses. While misinformation still spreads person-to-person, and even through snail mail, it’s hard to expect the online rumor mill will stay silent.
What kind of misinformation is out there?
Mis- or disinformation surrounding the census can take on different forms—a Facebook post, a misleading headline, a discussion in a Telegram channel.
As of this writing, there is not a lot of false or deceptive information about the census on mainstream social media platforms, according to a Quartz review confirmed by independent researchers. This could be because the census is still several months away, or because the tech companies that dominate online discourse and the Census Bureau are actually doing a decent job containing them.
The Census Bureau itself is asking people to send it rumors, and has several websites devoted to fact-checking. One piece of false information it has identified, which, according to the bureau, originated overseas, says that people posing as representatives of a non-existent “Department of Home Affairs” are canvassing neighborhoods asking people to show them their IDs in preparation for the census, and that they are committing crimes at the homes while doing so.
There are some misleading headlines on right-wing websites that refer to the citizenship question, and occasional social media posts have called to boycott the census—but none, seemingly, that have spread significantly.
In the more hidden corners of the internet, like themed channels on the app Telegram or the discussion boards on 4chan, a different kind of messaging is percolating, said Mathew Markman, chief research adviser for Memetica and research associate at the University of Hawaii Center for Futures Studies. Users are re-sharing older demographic information—including from past censuses—to support racist narratives like the “white (or great) replacement theory” which warns of an impending white genocide. They do so by showing, for example, lower birth rates among whites and higher among blacks, or scaremongering about increasing immigration rates. They share these tidbits of information alongside other data snippets that show that areas with higher populations of people of color have higher crime rates (this, of course, is in reality a complicated story tied to systemic inequities).
The immediate goal of these posts, Markman says, “is to create this triggering emotion, fear-based response from not only people who are already mobilized and engaged, but potential followers.” And the overall objective is to increase turnout for white populations, while undermining the participation of minorities. And this messaging matters because among the target audience for these posts are ostensibly people with conservative or libertarian world views who don’t trust the government and its institutions, like the census.
Looking at these narratives, Markman is concerned about what might happen after the 2020 census, depending on the results, and how its results might serve as fodder for more such activity. “When the information comes out, then [the far right] have a whole other arsenal of information to draw on that’s relevant.”
What are the efforts to fight the bad information
The good news is that there is an unprecedented effort to “get out the count,” and counter misinformation. Social media platforms have launched their own census efforts. Facebook came out with a census content policy that is quite specific and comprehensive, said Maria Filippelli, a public interest technology census fellow at the New America Foundation. “That was really encouraging to see,” she added.
Local and national groups have launched informational campaigns, and are training people to combat misinformation in face-to-face conversations. “For the first time in census history in Illinois, there is a baseline education on the census in a way that we’ve never had before,” said Banerji.
Philadelphia, where an estimated 50,000 undocumented immigrants live, did undercount its residents in the 2010 census. “We are very aware of the challenges that have been created by the proposed citizenship question and we’re doing a lot to make sure that people in our immigrant community understand that the question is not on the form; why it’s important to participate; and the protections that are there for the data [to remain safe and confidential],” said Stephanie Reid, executive director for Philly Counts 2020. The organization is training thousands of people who can talk to people on the ground.
“We really do believe that having a strong grassroots network of trusted messengers who can have one-to-one conversations with people in the city, is the real key to debunking a lot of these rumors that go around,” Reid said.
What are you seeing about the census online?
Tell us how you see the 2020 census being promoted online, especially if it’s not official Census Bureau content. What are the ads, posts, and memes referencing the count effort? Is there anything that seems to be misleading or false? If so, we urge you to flag the suspicious content to the platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), and send it to the Census Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org. But also, let us know! We will be responsibly tracking any misinformation and disinformation efforts.