Last summer, Facebook earned oodles of positive press when it announced it would crack down on misinformation regarding the 2020 census.
But recent events suggest the company cares more about taking credit than taking action.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign began running a series of ads directing users to fill out the “Official 2020 Congressional District Census.” Users who clicked were not directed to the official 2020 census, as one might expect, but to a Trump campaign website.
The website leaned into the ruse with a “For Official Use Only” and “Survey ID” number “stamped” in the corner. Users were directed to submit their personal information, which the campaign dutifully recorded, then asked to donate to the Trump campaign.
Judd Legum of the online newsletter Popular Information first noticed the ads. He alerted Facebook to them on Thursday, noting the site’s stated ban on “misleading information about when and how to participate in the census.” Facebook told him the ads didn’t violate company policy and declined to take action.
Facebook brass hastily reversed that decision hours later after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the Trump campaign survey “an absolute lie” in her weekly press conference and directly blamed Facebook for enabling it.
It’s “a lie that is consistent with the misrepresentation policy of Facebook,” Pelosi said, referring to Facebook’s official policy of not removing false or misleading political content. “But now they’re messing with who we are as Americans. I know that profit motive is their business model, but it should not come at the cost of counting who is in our country.”
Shortly thereafter, Facebook reversed course, decided the ads actually did run afoul of the company’s ban on “census-related misinformation,” and deactivated the ad campaign. The platform then congratulated itself for adhering to its own (purported) policy.
“There are policies in place to prevent confusion around the official U.S. Census and this is an example of those being enforced,” a Facebook spokesperson told HuffPost in an emailed statement.
The Trump campaign did not immediately reply to HuffPost’s request for comment on the ad. Facebook didn’t respond when asked if its decision to remove the ad would influence how it handles other misleading political advertising moving forward.
For the first time in census history, the 2020 count will permit people to respond online, which adds to the concern over the Trump campaign’s digital mimicry.
The anxiety also extends offline. Trump’s digital ads closely resemble physical mailers the Republican Party has sent out that also mimic official census documents.
An RNC spokeswoman defended the mailers as being “fully compliant with the law” in a statement to Reuters on Thursday, but said the party would add language in the future to more clearly distinguish them as Republican fundraising documents.
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