/Facebook unveils plans to fight misinformation about census

Facebook unveils plans to fight misinformation about census

Facebook Public Policy Director Neil Potts

“We expect that people will understand our rules … and they will try to alter their activity to subvert our rules,” Neil Potts, Facebook’s public policy director, told POLITICO. | Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Facebook on Sunday announced it’s developing a plan to stop misinformation aimed at keeping people from participating in the 2020 census, the results of which will shape American political districting for a decade.

The company said it will release a policy this fall that prohibits users from misrepresenting “census requirements, methods or logistics,” and will deploy algorithms to detect and delete census-related misinformation. It will also appoint a manager to oversee its “census interference policy” and train staff to specifically handle census-related ads and content. Facebook detailed its plans in a 26-page update to an ongoing civil rights audit published Sunday, part of a broader effort to tackle civil rights concerns that advocates have raised about the social network.

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“It’s important to this census in particular because it’s going to be a digital census, so people are just going to be going online to get information about it,” Laura Murphy, a former American Civil Liberties Union director leading the civil rights audit for Facebook, said in an interview. “If people are going to Facebook to get that information, there’s an opportunity there to mislead them.”

Murphy said civil rights groups have identified the 2020 election and census as events likely to inspire harassment, discrimination and misinformation aimed at disenfranchising racial and religious minorities, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals. A number of advocacy groups have already warned about potential efforts to skew census participation in order to under-count minorities and give outsize representation to rural whites once the census is used to draw political districts in 2022. Some have accused the Trump administration of trying to dissuade immigrants from completing the survey by seeking to add a question about U.S. citizenship — though a Supreme Court ruling last week dealt a blow to that effort.

With both the census and presidential election taking place next year, 2020 will present a major test of Facebook’s ability to halt the kind of misinformation and foreign meddling that was rampant during the 2016 election cycle. Then, Russian actors used social media to exploit racial, religious and political divisions in the U.S. to the benefit of President Donald Trump, including by working to suppress voter turnout among minority groups. Internet companies largely missed the illicit activity and have scrambled to avoid a repeat scenario.

“This effort around this particular census — this is just my personal view — represents the maturation of Facebook around democracy efforts in general and civic participation in general, where they are trying to be more proactive and less reactive,” Murphy said.

Facebook also said Sunday that by the end of the year it will resurrect its election “war room,” first launched during the 2018 U.S. midterms, for the 2020 presidential campaign in order to quickly respond to voter suppression, hate speech and other threats. A similar operation was set up for last week’s Democratic debates, the company added.

And the company has established a team dedicated to the 2020 election that includes staff pulled from its product, engineering, threat intelligence, policy, legal and other departments, all working under the direction of a project manager. Facebook intends to augment those workers with experts who specialize in voting rights and the census.

“We expect that people will understand our rules … and they will try to alter their activity to subvert our rules,” Neil Potts, Facebook’s public policy director, told POLITICO. “It is incumbent on us to be aware of that and have our rules be nimble enough that we can iterate on [them] very quickly to get down that type of speech that is meant to disenfranchise people.”

To that end, Facebook may soon expand its crackdown on content tied to white nationalism and white separatism that it first announced in March, the company said in its audit report. The company is evaluating a policy that would ban content promoting such ideas even if terms like “white nationalism” are not explicitly used. It will also prohibit organizing armed protests outside houses of worship — a concern civil rights groups have raised — and, for the first time, prohibit ads in the U.S. that tell people not to vote.

Civil rights groups have also bemoaned posts from activists and minority users that have been improperly swept up in Facebook’s content moderation filters, particularly when those posts condemn racism or describe experiences with racism. In response, Facebook has pledged to start looking at the captions and context of civil rights-related posts that have been flagged for removal.

The next update to the civil rights audit will come in December. In the meantime, Facebook has established a Civil Rights Task Force, chaired by Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, that will meet monthly to discuss progress on issues raise in the audit and identify other civil rights concerns, the company said.

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