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By Sarah E. Needleman
Social-media companies that have spent months pledging to bolster their defenses against the spread of misinformation through their platforms ahead of this year's presidential election are about to get a first big test, the U.S. census.
Facebook Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. have barred ads containing inaccurate information about the decadal count of people living in the U.S. that starts this month. They also have said they would prohibit content designed to spread misinformation about the time, means or eligibility requirements for participating in the process.
Twitter Inc. and Reddit Inc. have started working with nonprofits and others to help ensure information on their platforms doesn't discourage people from participating.
The U.S. Census Bureau has set up a trust-and-safety team to protect the integrity of the count. That team, it said, was working with the social-media companies and others to combat false and misleading information.
Stephen Buckner, assistant director of communications for the Census Bureau, has said the agency is worried that foreign or domestic individuals or groups that he didn't otherwise identify may try using social networks to deter people from participating in the census. The companies have pledged to quickly deal with posts the agency's team identifies as potentially harmful to the count.
"What the social-media platforms need to do is ensure the right information is available to people," said Joan Donovan, director of research at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Truthful content should show up at the top of search results, for example, and false information should be removed, something the big social networks traditionally haven't done well, she said.
Arriving at accurate census numbers is important because the effort required by law every 10 years influences the redistribution of seats in the House of Representatives and allows states to redraw congressional, legislative and local political districts.
"Disinformation campaigns designed to discourage participation in the census stand as a real threat to the full and accurate census that we are working hard to achieve in 2020," Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said. "These campaigns can have a particularly negative impact on communities of color and young people who are overrepresented among the hard-to-count communities."
Social-media platforms are under particular scrutiny after a Senate committee report in October criticized U.S. tech companies for helping spread disinformation during the 2016 election. Lawmakers called for better coordination of efforts to prevent such activity in the 2020 election.
The battle between those seeking to spread disinformation and the tech companies trying to stamp out such content has turned into somewhat of an arms race. Manipulators are continuously adopting new techniques and tools to stay ahead of the platform operators, according to researchers. For example, researchers say, manipulators can convince others to attempt to vote in a federal election via text message, even though that isn't possible.
Ahead of the 2020 census, some tech companies have revamped their policies to make it clear to both users and advertisers what they consider unacceptable content related to the count.
Facebook, as part of its ad policy, said advertisers won't be allowed to portray census participation as useless or meaningless. It is requiring all census-related ads to identify who is funding them, not unlike the kind of messages that candidates have to include in campaign ads.
Facebook said it won't allow posts falsely stating that completing the survey will result in law-enforcement consequences. Alphabet said it is applying similar rules to videos and comments on YouTube. It also will take steps to ensure misleading information isn't channeled through Google search, Gmail and the Google Play app store.
Politicians who violate Facebook's census policies will have the offending posts or ads removed, the company said. That stance contrasts with how it handles most content from politicians, where it has said it wouldn't censor speech.
"We are also using our operations center for real-time monitoring of potential census interference so that we can quickly address any abuse," Facebook said in a blog post.
Twitter, in November, held a three-hour workshop in Washington, D.C., for community groups and nonprofits on the spread of misleading information online and how the company's policies on that matter will apply to the census count. "We continue to be engaged with Census Bureau leadership on how we can work with them and host future events," a company spokeswoman said.
Reddit, between September and December, hosted eight "Ask Me Anything" sessions about the census on its platform. Users were given the opportunity to ask questions about the count and get immediate answers from participating civil-rights groups, nonprofits and government agencies whose work touches on the census. More than 85,000 users participated.
"The goal is to demystify the process of the census and give Redditors an opportunity to engage directly with people in the know about this process," said a spokeswoman for the message board.
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 02, 2020 10:24 ET (15:24 GMT)
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