Democrats urge tech giants not to screw up the census

By Cristiano Lima

Democrats are making a plea to tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter that failed to stop hoaxes and trolls from swarming the 2016 elections: Don't bungle the 2020 census.

Some lawmakers fear the once-a-decade tally will become a magnet for misinformation from overseas and U.S.-based trolls seeking to keep minority groups from filling out their census forms correctly — or at all. That would be a reprise of the Kremlin’s efforts to inflame social and political divisions before the 2016 presidential contest, as well as a possible preview of interference in next year's election.

Democrats’ big worry is depressed census participation among minorities, which would give outsize representation to rural whites once states use the results to redraw their political districts in 2022.

And for the tech industry, they argue, the census is a chance to show that the companies have learned the lessons of 2016 — at a time when they’re under fire from an increasingly skeptical Washington.

“This is one of the most foundational aspects of American democracy and this will go a long way towards determining whether or not they view themselves as part of the American community,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told POLITICO.

He and members of the Democratic-led Congressional Black Caucus are among Capitol Hill's most active lawmakers on the matter. CBC leaders met with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in May to discuss Facebook’s efforts to shield the census, a company spokesman told POLITICO.

More recently, the CBC launched a 2020 census task force, and caucus spokeswoman Gabrielle Brown said the group plans to offer recommendations to tech companies on how they can bolster participation in the count. The caucus, whose members include several House committee leaders, is also eyeing a slate of hearings devoted to the census that are expected to touch on the online industry’s role, Brown said.

Tech companies have pledged to take some steps to prevent interference with the count — including a promise by Sandberg to “treat next year’s census like an election.” But their efforts could further complicate Silicon Valley’s relationship with Republicans, who accuse the industry of catering to liberals.

Some critics on the right are already calling foul on the efforts the industry has previewed, alleging that the push to secure the census is politically motivated and meant to help Democrats.

“We’re supposed to trust that they will work with the census in a fair and equal way, and I just don’t see how anybody can conclude that,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of the conservative watchdog group TechWatch. The group has accused online platforms of systematically stifling conservative speech, an unproven charge that tech companies deny.

The concerns come at a charged time for the census. Next year’s count will be the first ever to allow residents to submit responses entirely online and to extensively rely on technology in the field over pen and paper, a shift that could make it especially ripe for misinformation. The normally staid process became politically charged last year, when the Trump administration embarked on an unsuccessful quest to add a question asking whether respondents are U.S. citizens, a move that opponents called a thinly veiled attempt to depress the count in heavily Democratic communities.

Rep. Yvette Clarke said she could see similar tactics to the Russian bots in the 2016 election “being deployed when it comes to getting an accurate census count.

As the April 1 date designated as Census Day — the point by which the government will have made contact with all U.S. households — nears, any compelling evidence that the industry is failing to beat back misinformation would add further heft to calls in Washington to investigate, regulate or even break up big tech companies. The industry has faced widespread derision for allowing Russian-backed trolls and bots to spread fake news and divisive messages before Election Day 2016, including posts and ads that researchers have said were aimed at deterring African Americans from casting ballots for Hillary Clinton.

Some industry players are trying to get ahead of Washington and take action before being drawn into a political fracas. Sandberg’s pledge, which she announced in June as part of a civil rights audit, said the company would put “people, policies and technology in place to protect against census interference.”

Sandberg also teased plans to update the company’s content policies this fall to address census misinformation. A Facebook spokesperson told POLITICO the update is expected to build off the company's existing policies aimed at thwarting voter suppression efforts.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have also committed to help the Census Bureau quash false information about the tally, as Reuters reported in March. A Twitter spokesperson said company representatives have held several meetings with Census Bureau officials and civil rights groups to talk about those efforts.

But lawmakers like Schatz are still seeking greater commitments.

Last month, the Hawaii Democrat pressed the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Reddit in a series of letters to “help ensure that the 2020 Census is full, fair, and accurate” by taking steps to restrict and disclose misleading information that appears across their products. He urged the companies to tweak their algorithms and policies to ensure misleading information is not recommended to users, to swiftly take down any fraudulent news about the census, and to provide reports to Congress and federal agencies on their efforts to maintain the tally's integrity.

Meanwhile, Brown said the CBC has reached out to tech companies to stress the importance of combating misinformation about the census, particularly as it relates to historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities.

“It’s well documented what Russian bots did at the behest of the Kremlin in terms of targeting communities of color with misinformation” in 2016, said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), one of the lawmakers leading the caucus’ task force. “I could see that same type of tactic being deployed when it comes to getting an accurate census count."

Clarke added that the tech companies "need to join us in this particular campaign to make sure, particularly in communities that are hard to count, that they are working in concert with the Census Bureau to try to get as many people as possible to fill out the census."

Sandberg's May meeting was with three other CBC members spearheading the push: caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). The sitdown preceded the next month's announcement from Facebook on its census integrity efforts.

But even the ostensibly apolitical promise to prevent interference faced opposition from conservatives, including the Media Research Center, the umbrella organization for Gainor's TechWatch group. It accused Facebook of working with liberal leaders to push "for even more censorship than Facebook already has" — questioning, for example, whether “any mention of illegal immigration on the census would be removed as ‘potentially suppressive.’”

Representatives for Facebook, Google, Twitter and Reddit declined to say whether they plan to implement Schatz's recommendations. A Facebook spokesperson said the company appreciates "his input as we finalize the plans we recently announced regarding the census.” A Twitter spokesperson said the company intends to respond to Schatz's letter, but declined to comment further.

A Google spokesperson said the company "is committed to combating misinformation and fraudulent activities to help ensure the integrity of the count" but did not comment on Schatz's specific requests. Reddit did not offer comment.

Some Democrats said the absence of more sweeping steps has left them nervous that the industry won't do enough to help secure the census.

“We need much more effective preventive steps to take responsibility for some of the misuse of social media,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “My feeling is that the tech companies have yet to fully take responsibility."