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The presidential election won't be the only big test of Facebook's efforts to fight misinformation in 2020: It’s also a census year, and the social network is ramping up its defenses against hoaxes that could turn people off from participating.
Facebook convened officials from the U.S. Census Bureau, other tech companies and several civil society groups for a summit in its Washington office yesterday as part of the company’s “ongoing coordination and discussions about protecting next year’s census from interference,” Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said.
Social media has exploded dramatically since the last head count a decade ago. Disinformation experts are concerned that it could now be a prime tool for foreign adversaries or domestic political groups seeking to undermine census participation, especially from groups typically wary of the government-led population count.
There could be "an explosion of potential [misinformation] and disinformation once public awareness of census grows in the first quarter,” Cameron Hickey, a disinformation researcher who attended Facebook’s summit, told me in an interview.
The stakes are high: The census is the primary tool to determine how many House seats and therefore electoral college votes a state receives. And it's a significant factor in the redrawing of congressional districts. It’s even the underpinning for a wide range of federal data that informs decisions about everything from health care to the economy.
And the clock is ticking for Facebook's leaders: Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have promised the company will treat the census like a high-priority election. The company has also said it will roll out a comprehensive policy specifically outlining how it will respond to those seeking to interfere with the census.
They’re particularly on the lookout for falsehoods on the platform that could discourage groups such as minorities, immigrants and people who don’t speak English from turning out. Census officials will be working with the company to try to dispel common hoaxes, such as anything that alludes to the Census Bureau sharing information it collects with law enforcement. (The Census Bureau is prohibited from doing this under U.S. law.)
Fears of foreign attempts to interfere with the census have been on the rise since Russia exploited social networks in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. The census could be a prime target for adversaries seeking to undermine U.S. political institutions.
But experts say domestic disinformation efforts could be just as formidable as people try to influence turnout for political gain. "If your goal is to undermine trust in government, the census is a perfect lever for that," said Alex Howard, an open government advocate who attended yesterday's summit.
There have been rumors, lies and misconceptions surrounding the census since it began, experts say, but with the rise of tech giants, they can be shared much more quickly and at a greater scale than ever. And today's polarized political environment is primed for the spread of falsehoods. Already, Hickey says he spotted misinformation earlier this year surrounding the Trump administration’s failed push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
Other tech companies haven’t announced plans for a policy on the census specifically, but they do say they're also committed to protecting it. Twitter is hosting a training today with Census representatives to address best practices, Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said. The company's policies prohibit sharing false information about how to participate in a civic event such as the census.
Two Google employees participated in the summit at Facebook. Google spokesman Nu Wexler said the search giant and its subsidiary YouTube are “committed to combating disinformation and fraudulent activities to help protect the integrity of the 2020 Census.”
Census officials say they’re working with the tech companies to debunk falsehoods related to the count. They’ve set up partnerships with Facebook’s fact-checking partners so they can share information with them directly. They also have a direct line with Twitter’s team looking at misinformation, as well as with Google’s team dedicated to census work.
“Different tech companies have different levels of staffing and some are bigger than others, but everyone understands the importance of the census and what it means, not just for political representation but also empowering neighborhoods,” said Stephen Buckner, assistant associate director for communications at the Census Bureau.
The Census Bureau is also taking steps to set the record straight on common myths related to the count through a recently launched website. It also launched the firstname.lastname@example.org email address, where people can report false information.
Advocates praised the work The Census Bureau is doing to engage the public, but they called for greater involvement from the White House.
"This should be a whole of government effort led by the top," Howard said.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: College student groups will protest today to pressure Palantir from renewing one of its contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement next week. The protests mark an escalation of the campus backlash against Palantir, as highlighted by college students' boycotts of the company's recruitment events earlier this year.
Fifteen student groups across the United States and United Kingdom will stand up against ICE's use of Palantir's FALCON program, which is just one of several Palantir technologies the agency uses to conduct raids and monitor immigrants. Mijente, an immigration rights advocacy group, helped organize the protests, which will include rallies and distributing fliers.
Participating schools include University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Edinburgh.
Activists at Carnegie Mellon plan on asking department chairs directly to boycott the company's presence on campus. They previously asked the provost to stop inviting Palantir to campus but were told it interfered with free speech.
"It’s not a matter of fress speech it’s a matter of exchanging money and access and platforming harmful speech," said Bonnie Fan, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student organizing the protests. "This is about the many ways that the university normalizes and elevates harmful tech development,”
Meanwhile, students at Georgia Tech will hold a three-hour rally to educate students, featuring speakers from local immigrant rights groups. Organizer Ezra Goss, a computer science PhD student at the school, said after activists protested Palantir's presence at a recent career fair on campus, organizers got more than 250 computer science majors to commit to not working for the company.
In September, 2,500 students across 30 campuses signed a pledge to not work for Palantir. The backlash pressured Palantir into dropping events or having partnerships at schools including University of California at Berkeley and Brown University canceled, but recruitment remains widespread at a number of other schools.
Correction: A previous version of this item misidentified Goss’s affiliation. He is a PhD student not candidate.
NIBBLES: The Federal Trade Commission’s review of the tech industry may be wider than previously known, the Wall Street Journal’s Ryan Tracy writes.
Federal Trade Commission Chair Joseph Simons said yesterday that the agency has “multiple other investigations going on with major platforms,” in addition to its confirmed probe into Facebook. Amazon could be one target. The company faces heightened scrutiny under a deal the FTC reached with the Justice Department this summer. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
The agency has interviewed Amazon sellers, but the e-commerce giant has not disclosed that it’s been notified of an investigation, the Wall Street Journal reports. Simons offered few details in his remarks at an American Bar Association event in Washington, not sharing specifics about any individual investigation. He said the agency’s new technology enforcement division is reviewing tech firm’s conduct, in addition to whether previous mergers and acquisitions were in violation of U.S. antitrust law.
The FTC is weighing whether some deals were executed as part of “a campaign of exclusionary conduct that includes exclusionary behavior like exclusive dealings (and) loyalty programs,” he said.
BYTES: Top Senate Democrats said that holding CEOs accountable for data protection and making algorithms that could lead to civil rights abuses transparent to users are among their top priorities for federal privacy legislation in a document released yesterday. The principles could mark a step toward uniting the party on privacy issues after Democrats have put forward a wide range of privacy bills in recent months.
The framework also includes the idea of a “do not track” list, which would prevent companies from monitoring users across platforms. Both Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have introduced their own versions of legislation for the idea.
The framework was signed by Senate Commerce Committee ranking Democrats Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Senate Banking Committee ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown (Ohio), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Democrats said any federal privacy enforcement must be complemented by a private right of action, a legal provision that would allow individuals to take companies to court for privacy violations. That could be a sticking point with Republicans, who have said such a mechanism is “totally a nonstarter.”
— News from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Lyft has brought on political strategist Jeremy Bird as Vice President of Public Engagement, according to a news release. Bird was previously the National Field Director for the 2012 re-election of President Barack Obama and is a founding partner of 270 Strategies.
- Uber Chief Product Officer Manik Gupta will leave the company next month, TechCrunch reports.
- The Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations will host a hearing to examine securing the United States research enterprise from China's talent recruitment plans on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
— Coming up:
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing on the deployment of autonomous vehicles on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
- The House Financial Services Committee will host a hearing on the role of big data in financial services on November 21 at 9:30 a.m.
- The House Energy and Commmerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on December 5.