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Tech industry girds itself for fake census news

A protester hoists a sign calling for a fair and accurate 2020 Census on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court at an April rally.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Google on Wednesday offered a roundup of its efforts to keep census misinformation from infesting YouTube, search, ads and other products. It's the latest signal from a tech platform looking to show it's taking the 2020 census seriously.

Why it matters: Census results from 2020 will be used to draw political districts in 2022, shaping democratic representation in the U.S. for a decade.

  • That makes the census a ripe target for parties domestic and foreign who want to skew the results by taking to the internet to discourage certain groups of people from taking part. Advocacy groups say these campaigns are particularly likely to target people of color, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community.

At Google, ads and YouTube videos that misinform people about when or how to take part in the census are banned, per a Wednesday blog post.

  • The company is also looking to boost accurate information in search and to keep fake Census Bureau outreach out of people's Gmail inboxes and apps that appear in the Google Play Store.

At Facebook, COO Sheryl Sandberg promised in June that "we’re going to treat next year’s census like an election."

  • That means resources devoted to training employees and algorithms to detect and root out census-related misinformation, the company said then.
  • And Sandberg said Facebook would roll out a new policy on census misinformation this fall. A company spokesperson said Wednesday the policy is being finalized now.

On Twitter, the service bans false or misleading information about elections and other civic events (like the census).

  • A spokesperson said the company has been in talks with Census Bureau officials on how best to support an accurate count.
  • But Twitter has been fairly quiet about specific efforts it's taking to protect the integrity of the census, prompting a letter from 57 House Democrats last month urging CEO Jack Dorsey to go public with a plan.

What's next: The Census Bureau will conduct its count by mail, phone, the internet and in-home visits next year, primarily in the spring.