Our Opinion: Beware political ads undermining census

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Facebook has a reputation for accepting misleading ads in its pursuit of higher and higher profits. The social media platform did, however, promise to crack down on ads undermining the 2020 Census, and by pulling an ad for the re-election of President Trump that misled voters it lived up to that promise. Berkshire residents should note, however, that the misleading campaign itself won't be stopped and will likely escalate.

The ad says, "President Trump needs you to take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today." Clicking on a red button saying "Take the Survey" leads to a website with questions asking visitors about party affiliation, whether they intend to support Mr. Trump and which media organizations they get their information from. Plainly, this is a Trump campaign ad that has nothing to do with the official Census 2020 count, which plays a critical role in determining the makeup of state and federal districts and the distribution of federal aid over the next decade. Facebook pulled the ad after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to it as a lie, "A lie that is consistent with the misrepresentation policy of Facebook."

The Trump administration first tried to meddle with the U.S. Census by adding a citizenship question that could discourage undocumented Americans or their families from filling it out. (The census is supposed to account for everyone living in the nation.) This was foiled by the courts. The ad with "Census" in the title is apparently intended to sow confusion and persuade voters not to fill out the real census form when it arrives because they already had filled out the fake one. This strategy could also confuse Trump supporters, of course, but the campaign apparently believes that it is most important to assure a lower census count, as the voters who traditionally are least likely to respond — young people and minorities — are traditionally likely to vote Democratic.

On Thursday, four Democratic members of the U.S. House sent a letter to the Republican National Committee urging it to stop sending our mailings that could also confuse recipients about the census. The RNC has denied the allegations.

Facebook, which routinely allowed inaccurate and/or misleading information to permeate its website during the 2016 presidential election, promised to do better this time. In January, it banned ads that discouraged people from participating in the Census or described it as "useless." It is encouraging that it has now banned the misleading Trump ad (the ad is also banned from Instagram, which Facebook owns) but it will have to remain vigilant in the months ahead as efforts to sabotage the census will continue. Census officials and elected officials in Berkshire County and around the nation knew these efforts were coming and have worked to alert people to them and encourage residents to only fill out the official census form.

Residents will be able to begin answering the census form this Thursday. Paper, telephone and online versions will be available. It is important that every Berkshire resident fill out the census form for their benefit as residents of the county, which has suffered a decline in population in recent years and needs everyone to be counted, and as residents of the state. It is also important that every Berkshire resident be alert to cynical, politically motivated efforts to undermine the census and discourage their participation, and not fall victim to them.

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