Facebook Bans Misleading Census Ads

On December 19, Facebook announced that it would ban ads aimed at limiting participation in the 2020 U.S. Census, which lawmakers and officials fear could be targeted by misinformation aimed to disrupt the count. The misleading content included information as to when and how to participate, who can participate, and what happens when people participate. Other misinformation, such as consequences including arrests or that a person’s census information would be shared with other government agencies, is also included in the ban. Incorrect information would be up for fact-checking. This is an effort by Facebook to “promote an accurate count of every person in the country.”

The census helps determine how many Congressional representatives each state will get, as well as how to allocate the $1.5 trillion in federal funds among the states. It will also direct congressional redistricting. Facebook said it would ban ads that “portray census participation as useless or meaningless or advise people not to participate in the census.”  It will also try to remove misleading census posts before people view them, but it will remove ads after as well. Facebook has categorized the misleading census posts as violating its community standards, thus they are subject to removal. Facebook will begin enforcing its census policy in January.

In a blog post, Facebook stated, “ads about the census will be subject to the increased transparency requirements for issue ads. This means any advertiser who wants to run an ad about the census will have to complete our strengthened authorization process for ads about social issues, elections or politics and include a disclaimer on such ads so people know who paid for them. These ads will be saved in our Ad Library for at least seven years.”

Facebook also assured that it has worked with Congress, the Census Bureau and other experts. Facebook also stated, “[w]e’ve set up a multi-disciplinary team across product, engineering, policy, operations and legal to work on protecting and promoting the census. We are also using our operations center for real-time monitoring of potential census interference so that we can quickly address any abuse…We are also working with local officials and Census Bureau partners by giving them access to CrowdTangle displays, a Facebook tool used to track how content spreads online.”

In September, a meme spread on Facebook “falsely claimed robbers were accessing homes by posing as government workers seeking census information. It was debunked by fact-checkers but not removed, in line with Facebook’s general fact-checking policies.” A source involved with countering census disinformation “cited frustration with the way Facebook handled the home robbers meme in September. Facebook did not remove the meme and did not provide the Census Bureau with detailed trends on how it was being shared.”

“Any good policy is meaningless without proper enforcement,” the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said. “We, along with our partners, will continue to work with Facebook to ensure that policies against census and voter interference are fully implemented. The census and our elections demand extreme vigilance — there are no do-overs.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights stressed the importance of truthful ads and a policy and enforcement on Facebook’s part to ensure truthful ads are kept and misleading ads are taken down.

Facebook and other social media platforms have been trying to stop misleading or false ads, especially ahead of the presidential election next year. Facebook has faced scrutiny for its hands-off political ads policy. Facebook stated that politicians would not be allowed to run ads conflicting with its census policies. Facebook has a similar policy for voting misinformation.  Google has created a team to prevent census misinformation.