A lesson from Census Counts: How to prevent disinfo from spreading

It was a weekend morning in March 2020.

The census campaign director at the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, with whom Spitfire was working to encourage participation in the 2020 Census, pinged us with a text message. The COVID-19 pandemic was quickly causing chaos across the United States, and there was news of a pending economic relief package from Congress. The text message confirmed we had an escalating misinformation situation on our hands. Tyrese Gibson, of “Fast and Furious” fame, had just posted on his Instagram account of more than 12 million followers false information claiming people had to fill out the census to receive a pandemic relief stimulus check. In our work with the Census Counts coalition, we had seen this false rumor a few times online in our monitoring of census-related social media conversations, but until now, we had all agreed not to respond. We didn’t want to plant the idea of the Census Bureau sharing an individual’s information with any government agency. Not only is the bureau legally prohibited from doing that, we also knew trust in the government was already very low, especially among the marginalized communities historically undercounted in the census, the very people we were motivating to be counted. Leaving this rumor unaddressed risked suppressing census participation.

But we had prepared for a scenario like this. When we first saw this false rumor surface, we drafted messaging in case it ever did warrant a response. And the campaign had a rapid response infrastructure in place. So, we alerted our partners working on the census to report the post to Instagram and Facebook as a violation of their census interference policy. And we reached out to the publicist of a prominent Black actress who was already engaged in promoting the census among our priority audiences to see if she would share a debunking message with her followers on social media. As it turned out, after about an hour, Instagram took down the harmful post so our partners didn’t have to activate their networks, and we all went back to our weekends.

That example demonstrates a number of lessons you will learn from Just Truth, A communicators’ guide to combating disinformation in a hyperconnected world.

  • Why did we decide this was a time to activate the network when we hadn’t in the past?
  • How did we know what kind of messaging to deploy?
  • What steps had we taken in advance so everyone knew how to report the misinformation to the social media platforms?

So what are you waiting for? Let’s get started. We recommend you start with the Misinformation vs Disinformation module.