Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Right-wing Facebook pages and groups are spreading disinformation about the census

The platform recently removed deceptive ads about the census, but elsewhere accounts are saying that "illegals” should not be counted because it is “true foreign interference in our election”

  • After facing backlash from leading members of Congress, Facebook removed ads last week containing disinformation about the census that were sponsored by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. However, Facebook pages and groups are still spreading disinformation and fearmongering which could interfere with the census count, potentially impacting congressional representation and federal funding for the next decade.

    The census, which is held every 10 years, “counts every person living in the 50 states, District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories” and determines each state’s congressional representation and allocation of federal funding. But minority communities, particularly people of color, have been historically undercounted, and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, along with its failed attempt to include a citizenship question in this year’s census has caused additional concern about undercounting. Even without the citizenship question, the Urban Institute projects that there will be a greater undercount of Black and Latinx communities than there was in the 2010 census. Such an undercount will lead to less political representation of these communities and less federal funding available to states with higher minority populations.

    Households will begin to receive invitations to fill out the 2020 U.S. census starting March 12. As this date approaches, misinformation about the census is spreading on Facebook, which can further complicate this constitutionally mandated process. And despite the importance of an accurate census count, the Republican National Committee is sending out mailers that are “disguised to look like official 2020 Census documents” in states across the country

    Journalist Judd Legum of the newsletter Popular Information raised concerns on March 5 about deceptive Facebook ads from the Trump campaign, which he argued were a “direct violation” of Facebook’s policy against “misleading information about when and how to participate in the census.” According to the report, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, which is a joint fundraising committee of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee, sponsored over 1,000 ads for Facebook using Vice President Mike Pence’s Facebook page. These ads deceptively urged users to “take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today,” but actually took them to a form to input their personal information and make a donation to the Trump campaign. Similar ads were also posted by Trump’s Facebook page.

    Facebook initially said that the ads did not violate its policy, drawing rebuke from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who called the ads “unacceptable interference in the Census.” Hours after Facebook declined to remove the ads, it reversed its decision, stating, “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 ads had already been seen hundreds of thousands of times by then, and some were not even immediately taken down.

    These ads are only part of the census disinformation spreading online -- particularly on Facebook, where right-wing pages and groups are calling for immigrants to not be counted in the census because of “foreign interference in our election” and fearmongering that the U.S. Census Bureau is “hiring serious criminals to enter the homes of unsuspecting Americans to gather statistics.” 

    Right-wing Facebook pages and groups are also fearmongering about noncitizens being involved with the census, despite the importance of counting all people living in the U.S. regardless of immigration status. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a frequent target of right-wing media figures, has also been the subject of anti-immigrant fearmongering around the census on Facebook, with one post in a popular right-wing group claiming that she is pushing “illegals” to be counted to defend her seat in Congress.

  • Disinformation: “Illegals” should not be counted because it is “true foreign interference in our election”

  • Since the first national count in 1790, the census count has included both U.S. citizens and noncitizens living in the country regardless of their immigration status. The Trump-Pence administration tried to add a citizenship question to the census in an effort to decrease minority response, particularly by immigrants, and give Republicans an advantage in redistricting, but federal courts permanently blocked the question from being included. However, right-wing figures continue to say that noncitizens living in the U.S., particularly undocumented immigrants, should not be counted for the census. 

    In late February, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk claimed on Twitter, “Illegals should not be counted in the census” because it is “true foreign interference in our election.” Kirk went on to claim that “California gets an extra 9 electoral votes because of counting illegals” and that “disenfranchises Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota.”

  • Kirk’s claims echo talking points long used by other conservatives to disparage immigrants, Democrats, and states with large immigrant populations, sometimes fearmongering about changing voter demographics based on census projections from the nativist Center for Immigration Studies. Projections from the nonpartisan Brookings Institution actually indicate that California may lose a congressional district and electoral vote from undercounting in the 2020 census, and Montana could actually gain one.

    After the February 26 tweet, Kirk’s words were shared on right-wing Facebook groups and pages, including:

  • Fearmongering: The U.S. Census Bureau is “hiring serious criminals” and “foreign nationals” to help conduct the census

  • Conservative group Judicial Watch and its president, Tom Fitton, regularly push misinformation that benefits Trump and right-wing causes. In particular, Fitton has been peddling disinformation to disenfranchise minority communities and sow distrust in both the voting and census processes. For instance, he has made repeated claims of voter fraud and “dirty voting rolls” during the 2020 presidential primaries.

    For the upcoming census, Judicial Watch has repeatedly fearmongered that the U.S. Census Bureau has been “hiring serious criminals to enter the homes of unsuspecting Americans to gather statistics” for a decade and has claimed that “the shocking practice continues” as the bureau continues to hire “criminals such as sex offenders to help conduct the 2020 count.” The group has posted this message at least five times in December and four times in January on its Facebook page.

  • The People’s Voice, which is a Facebook page run by fake news site NewsPunch, also pushed this same brand of fearmongering multiple times, saying that the Census Bureau is “enlisting felons to help conduct the 2020 count, as child sex offenders pass background checks.” 

    In addition to spreading disinformation that could affect census response, Judicial Watch is also fearmongering about the involvement of noncitizens in the census process. Judicial Watch shared several Facebook posts that were misleading and implied that the Census Bureau was potentially breaking the law with a “plan to hire foreign nationals” to help conduct the census.