Facebook allows Trump campaign to run deceptive Census ads [UPDATED]

This is the online version of the Popular Information newsletter. To get independent accountability journalism straight to your inbox, please subscribe:

UPDATE (3/5, 2 PM): Hours after the publication of this report, Facebook abruptly reversed course and said they would take down the Trump campaign’s ads about the Census. Facebook disclosed the decision in an email to Vanita Gupta, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Gupta emailed top leadership at Facebook, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, on Thursday regarding Popular Information’s report and Trump’s “deliberately deceptive and misleading” ads.

"Upon further review, these ads are currently being taken down given the policies in place to prevent confusion around the official U.S. Census," the company said.

November's election will have an enormous impact on politics in the United States for the next four years. But the 2020 Census, which starts in earnest in just one week, will shape the country for the next decade or longer. 

The 2020 Census will "determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives (a process called apportionment) and is also used to distribute billions in federal funds to local communities." 

Last June, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg emphasized how seriously the company was treating misinformation about the Census. 

[W]e’re going to treat next year’s census like an election — with people, policies and technology in place to protect against census interference. We’re building a team dedicated to these census efforts and introducing a new policy in the fall that protects against misinformation related to the census.

In December, Facebook announced a new policy that "bans misleading information about when and how to participate in the census and the consequences of participating." The company said the new policy was necessary to "ensure an accurate census count." Facebook made a point of emphasizing that, unlike its general policy on misinformation, the new 2020 Census policy would apply to political candidates.

The announcement generated a lot of positive press coverage:

But now, the Trump campaign is flooding Facebook with deceptive ads about the Census, and Facebook will not do anything about it. 

The Trump campaign is currently running more than 1,000 ads urging users to "take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today." The ads also include an image of the "2020 Census." 

Users that click on the ad are directed to a campaign website labeled as the "Certified Website of President Donald J. Trump." The upper right of the landing page says, "For Official Use Only." 

There is a clear and deliberate attempt to make this look like a government document. 

As the real 2020 Census approaches, media coverage stresses the importance of participating in the 2020 Census. The Trump ad exploits this sense of civic duty to collect American's personal information. 

After filling out the form, users are asked to make a donation to the Trump campaign.

This ad campaign appears to be a direct violation of Facebook's stated policy. That policy bans "misleading information about when and how to participate in the census." These ads deliberately mislead users into believing they can fill out the 2020 Census by clicking this Facebook ad. 

But a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information that the Trump campaign Census ads do not violate its policy. Why? According to Facebook, it is clear the Trump campaign ads are not about the official Census because the ads also reference his campaign. 

Vanita Gupta, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 civil rights groups, helped Facebook create its Census policy. She strongly disagreed with Facebook's decision. 

Gupta told Popular Information that Trump campaign ads violate Facebook's policy, and the company has an obligation to remove them. 

If President Trump says a fake census is "official," then people are going to think it’s official. Trump’s deceptive ads will confuse people about how and when to participate in the 2020 Census, threatening their right to get counted and bring resources and political power to their communities. Facebook was ahead of other social media companies in creating a robust census interference policy that clearly prohibits misrepresentation, and now it has a civic obligation to enforce it by following its own rules and removing these deceptive ads.

Gupta has been pushing Facebook to take civil rights issues more seriously, and the company's civil rights audit identified protecting the integrity of the 2020 census as a key priority. 

Another expert weighs in

Terri Ann Lowenthal gained expertise in Census issues as the staff director of a House subcommittee that oversaw the Census Bureau. She is now a consultant to various organizations with a stake in Census policy. Lowenthal also has a very different perspective on Trump's Facebook ads than Facebook.

In a statement to Popular Information, Lowenthal said she believes Trump's Facebook ads will create confusion, make it harder for the Census Bureau to do its job, and violate the spirit of a 2010 law that prohibits deceptive census information from being sent through the mail.  

No organization, especially one tied to a political party or candidate, should be using the census to attract attention to their mailings or fundraising appeals. While the Postal Inspection Service determines whether a particular piece violates the law, I think the Trump campaign appeal violates the spirit of the law. The Census Bureau already has an uphill climb to have its census advertising heard above the din of the presidential campaign and other pressing national issues. Any activities that try to take advantage of heightened attention surrounding the census for unrelated reasons make that effort harder. The administration should be doing more to promote 2020 Census participation in every community, not using the census as an opportunity to create confusion surrounding the count.

Exploiting the Census: Beyond Facebook

The new ads from the Trump campaign are part of a systematic effort by Republicans to exploit the Census for political purposes. Voters around the country are receiving paper copies of the "2020 Congressional District Census." While the mailings are designed to look like official documents, they are being sent by the Republican National Committee. Here is an example, via Mother Jones, of a fake Census document being sent to voters in Michigan.

Nearly identical mailers are being sent to voters in Illinois, where Senator Andy Manar (D) says, "he’s heard from senior citizens who are confused about whether the letters are official census questionnaires."

The fake Census mailers were also sent to voters in New York. Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, slammed the practice. "This is a perversion of the normal functioning of government. Its timing is particularly objectionable because it will confuse people and discourage them from actually participating in the official census," Lerner said

Last year, the State of Montana issued a warning to residents about the mailings. 

This reminder comes on the heels of a Census look-a-like survey being mailed to Montana residents in Gallatin County. The survey is called the “2019 Congressional District Census” and was mailed by the Republican National Committee. In addition, it asks respondents to pay, at minimum, $15 for processing the “Census Document.” In May, a nearly identical Census look-a-like mailer was sent to people in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Missoula counties...

“Montanans need accurate information about the Census to make sure we have a complete count of the folks who live here. A complete count means the state will get its fair share of federal funding,” Lt. Gov. Cooney said. “The official Census is easy to complete, secure, and does not cost money. An accurate and complete Census count for Montana is too important to take lightly.”

It's not only Democrats and government officials that are raising concerns. Former Republican Congressman (and current Fox News commentator) Jason Chaffetz condemned the mailers over Twitter.

But now Facebook, which professes to be committed to the integrity of the Census, is letting the same deceptive tactics be used on its platform.

UPDATE (11:30AM): House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to this report and blasted Facebook’s inaction. At a press conference Thursday morning, Pelosi said that Trump’s Facebook ads constituted “unacceptable interference in the Census and the company won't take it down.” Pelosi said that Facebook’s profit motive “should not come at the cost of counting who is in our country.”

Thanks for reading!