This is part of the Brennan Center’s response to the coronavirus.
During my self-imposed isolation in Florida during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, I voted early in the presidential primary and I filled out the 2020 census. This experience got me thinking: an election, an epidemic, and a census all require truthful information so that citizens know how to act responsibly.
Disinformation can be toxic in an election, damaging to an accurate census count, and potentially deadly in a viral pandemic. In each case, the government must provide accurate and clear information and then journalists need to transmit that information to the public in a non-sensationalized way. In our digital age, social media platforms like Facebook also have a key role to play in making sure that facts reach people, not misinformation.
As I explored in my book Political Brands, in today’s media environment, at least 62 percent of Americans get their news through social media platforms (as of 2016), and of Facebook users, 74 percent visit Facebook at least once a day (as of 2019). Thus, in an election year, what mega- platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow in political ads matters. In contrast to the position of Twitter, which wisely decided to refuse to run paid political ads in 2020, not only is Facebook allowing paid political ads, it is allowing politicians to lie to the public in these ads.
Facebook’s laissez faire policy on allowing lying in political ads got a significant test in early March when the Trump campaign ran a series of deceptive ads on Facebook which looked like they were official solicitations to fill out the 2020 census. Facebook users who clicked on the ads were taken to a webpage that seemed to be an official census page with a banner reading “OFFICIAL 2020 CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT CENSUS.” Users were asked to fill out contact information and for a donation to the Trump campaign. Independent journalist Judd Legum blew the whistle on these deceptive Facebook ads.
It’s not just the Trump campaign on Facebook — since October 2019, the Republican National Committee has been sending bogus mailers to citizens’ homes that also look like official census documents that say they are the “Congressional District Census.” These mailers work like the Trump online ads, asking people for personal information and money.
These fake Trump ads and RNC mailers are particularly troubling because the real 2020 census can be filled out online or by mail. These bogus ads could have the twin effects of confusing citizens into thinking that they had already participated in the 2020 census and tricking people into giving money to the president’s reelection campaign. The census matters because the results dictate everything from how big each state’s congressional delegation is to how $1.5 trillion in federal resources are allocated.
After Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi complained about Facebook allowing the deceptive faux census ads, Facebook decided to pull them, stating that they violated the company’s policy against any ads that undermine the census. Facebook is to be commended for stepping in to protect its users from these frauds. And after pressure from House Democrats, including Rep. Katie Porter of California, the RNC has stopped its deceptive mailers as of March 12.
Under more normal circumstances, the fact that the president’s campaign was trying to trick Americans with fake census forms would likely be a front-page scandal. Lawyers working on the integrity of elections and the census like Vanita Gupta clearly took this problem seriously. But if you missed it, that would be understandable since it unfolded as first impeachment took up all the oxygen and then the coronavirus started to spread worldwide.
But the problems highlighted in the disinformation about the 2020 census follow a similar pattern of how the president initially downplayed the threat of Covid-19, predicting that 15 cases would shortly turn into zero cases. Both instances are attempts to manipulate the public through deceit. Americans who believed the president’s early response to the corona virus did not have information that would contextualize the magnitude of the threat, making it less likely for them to take steps to mitigate the risks to themselves or the community, like better hygienic practices and social distancing.
Trump also took to Twitter and Facebook to minimize the health risks to the public. Even after an attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) tested positive for Covid-19, the president continued to have large-scale political rallies. As an op-ed in the Boston Globe from March 7 warned, “Trump’s advice just might kill us.” The social media platforms did nothing to stop this misinformation from the president. And polling later showed the way that Republicans, following the president’s lead fell for the his misleading claims, and decided Covid-19 was not a grave threat.
So how could misinformation and disinformation play out in the 2020 election? One of the classic ways to try to depress the vote is to tell certain voters that an election has been postponed or that the election day has moved. Deceptive voter suppression fliers from 2004 election distributed in Ohio told voters that Republicans should vote on Tuesday (Election Day) and Democrats should vote on Wednesday (not Election Day).
Now voters have to navigate elections during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ohio, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Georgia have actually postponed their presidential primaries to avoid transmission of the coronavirus. But this could cause voters in other state to fall for bogus claims that an election has been postponed to a different day when it hasn’t. The Fourth Estate has a vital role to play here to inform voters what elections have actually been moved and which are going forward as planned. And social media platforms should also be careful to take down misleading information about elections being moved if they are going on as originally scheduled. Ballotpedia has a running comprehensive list of which elections have actually been postponed here.
2020 was always going to be a momentous year, with both a presidential election and the census. But now Americans have the overlay of the coronavirus pandemic to traverse too. We can get through all three with aplomb, but only if we have access to facts.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.