If you search Twitter for “certain keywords associated with the Census,” instead of getting random tweets with census hoaxes, you’ll now get a search prompt that will provide links to the official census Twitter account and website, Twitter announced in a blog post. The move is an expansion of Twitter’s election integrity policy, which has existed since last April and prohibits users from sharing “false or misleading information about how to participate in an election or other civic event.”
Of course, this doesn’t guarantee anyone clicks through the links, or that they’ll be able to find the information they want once they get to Census.gov (or that they’ll even trust a government website to give them the information). It also doesn’t prevent people from posting hoaxes or fake census information in the first place. Since the national survey conducted once every ten years determines federal funding formulas and states’ representation in the House of Representatives, making sure people have accurate information about how and when the census is conducted is important and, unfortunately, ripe for disruption by bad actors or foreign agents.
“Ensuring the public can find information from authoritative sources is a key aspect of our commitment to serve the public conversation on Twitter,” Kevin Kane, Twitter’s public policy manager, wrote in the blog post. The census search prompt will be part of Twitter’s #KnowTheFacts hashtag, meant to prevent the spread of misinformation.
There’s nothing stopping a bad actor from hijacking Twitter’s #KnowTheFacts hashtag
All in all, however, the new “tool” looks like yet another weak effort by a social media platform to address an overwhelming problem it apparently (still) can’t handle adequately. There’s nothing stopping a bad actor from hijacking the #KnowTheFacts hashtag for their own purposes, and the census search prompt doesn’t really combat anything, but leaves it up to users to follow the “correct” links.
Twitter probably could do more to actually address misinformation on its site, but it continues to struggle to enforce its own policies. Sometimes it gets things right: in January, Twitter permanently suspended Zero Hedge’s account for violating its platform manipulation policy. The account doxxed a Chinese scientist and (incorrectly) suggested he created the latest coronavirus. In September, Twitter suspended thousands of accounts for violating its platform manipulation policy, and during Hong Kong elections in August, suspended 200,000 accounts it accused of falsely depicting pro-democracy protests there.
But other times, Twitter is inconsistent. The platform’s manipulated media policy states that faked content “likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm” might be removed. But since it doesn’t go into effect officially until March 5th, the rule apparently did not apply to a video President Trump posted to multiple social media channels (including Twitter) which showed an edited clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tearing up Trump’s State of the Union speech. The video made it appear as if Pelosi took the action in response to other stories. (It was the second time Trump tweeted a doctored video of Pelosi. Twitter did nothing about that one, either).
Twitter, of course, has grown significantly in the years since the 2010 census, now boasting 152 million daily users just in the final months of 2019. So its potential to have an impact on the presidential elections and the census surveys is likely even greater than it was 10 years ago. But despite that increased prominence, the company’s efforts to control the spread of misinformation still appear to be largely reactive, and rely too much on users to flag content that is problematic.