Rumors can be hard to contain once they take root on social media, as shown by posts about census workers and criminals that appeared in 2019 on Facebook and the hyper-local website Nextdoor, usually a place where neighbors go for tips on plumbers and pest control services.
“Be warned,” advised one post, which appeared to originate on WhatsApp before spreading. A nefarious group was going home to home and claiming to be taking the decennial census, but they were actually “robbing homes.” A resident in Virginia’s Tidewater region was worried enough to write on Nextdoor, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I sent this to my neighbors. Better to be safe than sorry!”
Not only was the alert false, but it was also potentially dangerous to bureau workers, and it threatened the bureau’s gargantuan mission to count the population of every city, town, county and state in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zack Schwartz, a bureau division chief, stepped into the breach, helping to create and run the Trust & Safety Team. This was the first government organization of its kind that worked internally and with technology leaders from such companies as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia to develop ways to spot and halt false information.
Schwartz and his Census Bureau group partnered with more than 40 entities, including technology and fact-checking organizations, to safeguard the 2020 census from false information. Schwartz’s team also worked with civil rights and community groups, and organizations such as AARP.
Ron Jarmin, the acting director of the bureau, said Schwartz understood the threat posed by false information and dealt with the problem in a new and innovative way.
“Zack Schwartz knew what needed to be done. He knew how the technology companies approach this problem, and he knew what was needed to get them engaged with the government,” Jarmin said. “He put together the right plan, talked to the right people and connected all of the dots.”
The dozen-member team, including Stephen Buckner, the bureau’s assistant director for communications at the time, developed protocols to swiftly combat misinformation online and on the ground. Their task was enormous, considering that the percentage of people using social media nearly doubled since the last census in 2010.
The 2020 political climate added to the challenge with competitive political campaigns talking about the census in different ways. Woven into that fabric was a Supreme Court ruling and a controversial executive order dealing with who should be included in the final census numbers. These events fueled rumors that the bureau would share data and work with law enforcement authorities to identify and detain unauthorized immigrants. Though false, Schwartz said this misinformation could have led to an incomplete census count.
To combat the rumors, the census team and its partners established an expedited review process, monitoring traditional and digital media 24 hours a day. They hosted discussions on social media platforms and earned coverage in major national publications. They developed a “Fighting Census 2020 Rumors” page to set the record straight and allow easy access for fact checkers to get authoritative answers.
Their success was measurable. Consider a rumor saying that to get a CARES Act stimulus check from the government, families had to first fill out their census questionnaires. “That’s how they know where to send the checks,” said the claim on Facebook.
While the rumor might have spurred some people to fill out their census forms quickly, the bureau worried it could also cause distress among residents who feared – falsely – that the bureau was sharing their private information.
The Trust & Safety team quickly called its network to action. The truth-squad media organization PolitiFact, working with Facebook to call out falsehoods, was among the organizations alerted. Upon investigating the claim, the organization declared it “false.” What started as a 273% spike in reports to the [email protected] email address, created by the Schwartz group, decreased by 65% within a week because of such efforts, Buckner said.
Schwartz said the bureau wanted to make sure census workers were safe if they went into the field. The team detected and reported over 500 physical threats to field workers posted online. Despite these threats, employees did not suffer harm, because of the preventative strategies put in place.
As for the census itself, the 2020 count turned out by some measures to be the most successful ever, with the highest self-response rate of any census and 10 million people completing the questionnaire the first day
Scott Deutchman, a senior public policy advisor at Google, described Schwartz as a “great collaborator who brings partners together and creates trust and desire to do good things for government.”
The team’s template became a model for the next important national falsehood-dispelling campaign: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mission to combat false and misleading information about the coronavirus and the vaccines. The Census Bureau, it turned out, helped create a blueprint for the CDC, a prime example of how agencies can share best practices, develop new capabilities and adapt to an ever-changing world.