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Misinformation Campaigns, Cybersecurity and the 2020 Census

As preparations for the first primarily digital U.S. Census ramp up in communities across the country, experts continue to caution that there will be misinformation campaigns designed to deter participation.

South Philadelphia High School
South Philadelphia High School recently hosted an event in which experts discussed the threat of online misinformation campaigns to the 2020 Census.
Zack Quaintance/Government Technology
As the nation’s first primarily digital Census approaches, experts have issued warnings over unprecedented online threats aimed squarely at the count, the success of which is a bedrock of American democracy.

To understand the threats, one must first understand why the Census is so important as well as what is meant by primarily digital. First, the Census determines a trio of outcomes for communities: federal funding, political representation and data used to make decisions for the next decade — decisions ranging from frequency of police patrols to whether Starbucks opens a new shop at the end of a city block.

The decennial Census is the largest peacetime mobilization of the federal government, constitutionally mandated since 1790. There are always a number of challenges — owing to how difficult it is to count every person in a country — but this Census is different. Since 2010, the world has increasingly migrated online, and in 2020, so too will the U.S. Census. Residents can still complete the Census via analog means, but a clear onus is now on responding online, or digital first.

In a perfect world, this means improvement: People fill out the Census at home, on mobile devices, or at local libraries, all with less hassle and cost than if it were done on paper. And, indeed, the digital-first approach may yield improvements. 

In the real world, however, experts and stakeholders are warning about serious cyberthreats aimed at this year’s efforts. To better understand these threats and what can be done to counter them, Government Technology has spoken with experts, attended Census mobilization events and assembled this report on online misinformation, cybersecurity and the 2020 U.S. Census.


A massive challenge for local and state governments across the U.S. in 2019 was cybersecurity. 

Indeed, cities, counties and states were beset with waves of crippling cyberattacks from bad actors who held data hostage while demanding ransom. Local government agencies present a perfect storm of opportunity, giving hackers a high-profile target with cybersecurity protections that guard sensitive data while suffering from underfunding. 

The U.S. Census is arguably higher profile and rich with far more sensitive data than municipal targets, more so than even the large cities that have been hit, including Atlanta and New Orleans. And while some recent reporting has suggested the U.S. Census Bureau is grappling with vulnerabilities, Census and cybersecurity experts largely downplay cybersecurity as the most pressing concern related to the 2020 count.

See, the inclination for many is to think of cybersecurity as it relates to the Census just as one might think of cybersecurity and U.S. elections, a pressing concern nationwide. Brian Nussbaum, a fellow with New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative and an assistant professor of cybersecurity at the University of Albany, said the situations are not entirely comparable. 

“The Census is similar to concerns about cybersecurity in elections, in as far as it sort of gets to the core of democratic values and how votes are proportioned through the Census and collected through elections infrastructure,” Nussbaum said. “The big difference between the Census and elections is the Census is not administered at the local level the way elections are.”

What this means is, in all likelihood, the federal government will have an easier time taking standardized steps to increase cybersecurity throughout the Census.

danah boyd is a tech and social media scholar who is also a partner at Microsoft Research, and boyd said the data the Census collects will be protected by a software vendor, rather than by a system built by government. While this does present vulnerabilities, it also means the data is being protected through an interface that sits on top of Amazon Web Services, and if a bad actor could breach Amazon Web Services, they would be far more likely to go after lucrative targets, such as financial data. 

Experts in the Census space largely echoed this, noting that Census data being breached by hackers should be a concern, but in the grand scheme of online threats, there is another that warrants far more attention — the threat of deliberate and concentrated online misinformation campaigns.

Online Misinformation

In recent years, there has been much talk nationally about online misinformation campaigns such as those used in association with Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Now, some of the nation’s leading Census experts are warning that similar campaigns will be aimed at the Census, likely with the goal of causing an undercount to keep funding away from the communities that most need it, to limit political representation and to foul the data that now ranks among the most valuable resources in the world.

Terri Ann Lowenthal is a nationally recognized Census expert who was the staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives Census oversight subcommittee from 1987 to 1994. She also covered the Census Bureau for the 2008 Obama Presidential Transition Team. This year, she is advising many state and city Census support efforts. In October, Lowenthal also spoke to a collection of mayors and other local government officials at CityLab 2019 in Washington, D.C., an event that is widely considered the pre-eminent local government conference in the world. 

“Every Census has its challenges, every Census has its controversies,” Lowenthal said while speaking at the event. “I am particularly worried the 2020 Census is facing an unprecedented set of challenges that could thwart this Census.”

Lowenthal pointed specifically to the same type of online misinformation campaigns that have generated so much concern over U.S. elections. Joining Lowenthal in conversation at CityLab was Mayor Jorge Elorza of Providence, R.I. Elorza was well aware of these concerns.

“We’re acutely concerned and aware of the fact there will be a lot of misinformation out there,” Elorza said during a conversation with Government Technology after the event. “I will continue to stress how important it is for folks to fill out the form, and there are a number of folks who will continue to stress the exact same thing, but unfortunately it only takes one bit of misinformation to dissuade someone. It can easily outweigh all of the positive messaging. This is a moment we have to leverage all of the good will we’ve built up in the community.”

What this means is deputizing community groups and other trusted individuals at the local level to match and exceed misinformation with truth. This is an idea that has been echoed by those working to ensure an accurate count in cities across the country, from Detroit to Philadelphia to smaller jurisdictions in rural Georgia.

And as much as this is a cause for concern, there is optimism to be found in just how many hardworking community leaders are pushing to get the word out.

Reasons for Optimism

Amid all the fears of misinformation campaigns, there is also reason to be hopeful that a national volunteer effort can help spread the Census truth.

The many experts and public officials Government Technology spoke with stressed just how important it was to drown out the lies with accuracies. This, of course, is easier said than done, and establishing truth has proven to be a major challenge in an era when politicians and powerful institutions question established fact, to the point that the term "fake news" has entrenched itself in the country’s everyday lexicon.

On a chilly Saturday morning in November, however, a group of volunteers packed into the auditorium at South Philadelphia High School for a full day of Census preparation. The group was disparate, consisting of people of all ages and backgrounds. Conveners with the city arranged a slate of speakers between breakfast, lunch and coffee donated by local businesses. Experts that gave presentations ranged from leaders of nonprofit groups aimed at reaching hard-to-count populations to former Census Bureau officials who are now consulting with local leaders. One such member of the latter group was Jeri Green, who is currently the Census 2020 senior adviser for the National Urban League, having previously spent more than three decades with the Census Bureau. 

Green noted that the misinformation campaigns will be aimed at discouraging Census participation within communities of color — long among those least likely to complete the count. The recent controversy over President Trump’s now-withdrawn plan to add a question about U.S. citizenship to the Census is an example of a discouraging factor, because — while unsuccessful — it made enough headlines to sow distrust among immigrant communities. 

Green also said, however, that there are wide-spanning plans to meet people in their homes, on their TVs and wherever else they find trusted sources of information.

“You’re going to see so many Census ads on TV that you won’t be able to watch the Olympics,” she said.

Another point many experts agreed upon was that deputizing trusted community members is also key to countering misinformation around the Census. This is why perhaps the most hopeful moment at the Philadelphia event came when organizers on stage asked all the high school students in attendance to stand.

There were dozens of high school students there, clad in Census Counts T-shirts, and they all stood and raised their hands. While the bad actors online are preparing to launch discouraging information on social media, the young people were voluntarily in a school auditorium on a Saturday, committing to go door-to-door in their communities to let people know the truth. As frightening as online threats may be, there was real hope in that moment.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.