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Facebook to ban misinformation about 2020 census

Sheryl Sandberg, the company's No. 2 executive, says an accurate count is so crucial that the social network will treat the Census like an election.
Image: T-shirts are displayed at a community activists and local government leaders event to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston
Facebook said it will add a rule against spreading misinformation about the 2020 U.S. census, treating such posts with extra scrutiny out of fear they could disrupt the count.Brian Snyder / Reuters file

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook says it is adding a rule against spreading misinformation about the 2020 U.S. census, treating such posts with extra scrutiny out of fear they could disrupt the count.

The move places Facebook in a position of referee in the year-long effort with wide political ramifications. Civil rights groups and the U.S. Census Bureau had been asking tech companies, including Facebook to step up their fight against false information.

Next year’s census will be used to reapportion congressional seats and guide a wide array of other official decisions, though President Donald Trump has floated delaying the constitutionally required count after the Supreme Court this month dealt a setback to his effort to include a question about citizenship.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said on Sunday that an accurate Census was so crucial that the company would give it the same weight that it now gives elections.

“We’re going to treat next year’s Census like an election — with people, policies, and technology in place to protect against Census interference,” Sandberg said in a blog post addressing the company’s efforts around civil rights.

Facebook will have an internal team dedicated to the census, actively promote participation in the count and by this fall have a new written policy about census misinformation, she said.

The decision to take down false census information, such as wrong descriptions of how the census works, is an exception to Facebook’s usual practice of leaving up misinformation posted by users. Facebook has said it doesn’t want to be the judge of what’s true on the internet, although the company increasingly takes steps to prevent material judged false by fact-checkers from going viral.

Another exception is false information about voting, such as details about polling places. Facebook instructs its thousands of content reviewers to take down such posts.

Other tech companies haven’t gone as far as Facebook, despite a government request for help. Twitter said in a statement that it has had meetings with census officials to discuss how to “support a healthy conversation” about the count. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Facebook in May 2018 launched a broad "audit" of how it handles civil rights after reports that the company’s ad business was subverting federal laws barring discriminatory advertising in areas such as housing and employment.

Sunday’s post from Sandberg accompanied a 26-page update on the progress of the review, which is being done by an outside consultant, Laura Murphy, a longtime civil rights advocate and former head of the ACLU’s Washington office.

The civil rights audit addresses the possibility of census misinformation, as well as recent changes Facebook has made to bar white nationalist posts and to try to eliminate discriminatory advertising. Murphy has recommended other changes at Facebook, such as broadening the company’s definition of what counts as white nationalism and making it easier for content reviewers to see the context of a post before judging it.

Sandberg said Facebook would establish a permanent civil rights task force that she would chair after the audit is completed next year.

Murphy told NBC News that it was difficult to determine whether Facebook would be able to address census misinformation “because the threat is unknown.”

“We don’t know how many people are going to try to use Facebook to interfere with the census or to make misrepresentations,” she said.

Neil Potts, a Facebook public policy director, said in an interview that resources to fight census misinformation would not be a problem, citing the 30,000 people the company has working on content review. “We’re treating the census as a top-tier election,” he said.

Many civil rights groups believe there’s a danger the census won’t fully count the number of minorities in the country, reducing their political power and access to public resources. Rashad Robinson, president of the group Color of Change, said Facebook’s response could help avoid that outcome if it follows through.

“Ensuring that Facebook is not a home for that type of suppression is incredibly important to us,” he said.