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Census searches on Twitter will redirect users to official links, but are unlikely to stop hoaxes

If you search on Twitter for “certain keywords linked to the Census,” instead of receiving random tweets with census hoaxes, you now get a search with links to the official census Twitter account and website, Twitter announced in a blog post. The move is an extension of that of Twitter election integrity policy, which has been in existence since April last year and prohibits users from sharing ‘false or misleading information about participating in an election or other social event’.

This of course does not guarantee that someone will click through the links, or that they can find the information they want as soon as they Census.gov (or that they even trust a government website to give them the information). It also does not prevent people from posting hoaxes or false census information. Since the national survey, which is conducted once every ten years, determines the federal financing formulas and the representation of states in the House of Representatives, it is important that people have accurate information about how and when the census is held, and unfortunately ripe for disruption by bad actors or foreign agents.

“Ensuring that the public can find information from authoritative sources is an important aspect of our effort to serve the public conversation on Twitter,” wrote Kevin Kane, Twitter’s policy manager, in the blog post. The count prompt will be part of Twitter’s #KnowTheFacts hashtag, intended to prevent the spreading of incorrect information.

All in all, however, the new ‘tool’ looks like yet another weak attempt by a social media platform to tackle an overwhelming problem that it apparently cannot (yet) adequately address. Nothing prevents a bad actor from hijacking the # KnowTheFacts hashtag for his own purposes, and the census search does not really fight anything, but leaves it to users to follow the “right” links.

Twitter could probably do more to tackle incorrect information on its site, but it continues to struggle to enforce its own policies. Sometimes it goes well: in January Twitter permanently suspended the account of Zero Hedge for violating his account platform manipulation policy. The account has deceived a Chinese scientist and (wrongly) suggested that he created the latest corona virus. In September, Twitter has suspended thousands of accounts for violating platform manipulation policies and during the Hong Kong elections in August, suspended 200,000 accounts it was accused of falsely displaying pro-democracy protests there.

But other times Twitter is not consistent. The manipulated media policy of the platform states that falsified content “that is likely to affect public safety or cause serious damage” can be removed. But since it only officially comes into force until March 5, the rule apparently did not apply to a video that President Trump placed on multiple social media channels (including Twitter), showing an edited clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the state van Trump tore up the Union’s speech. In the video, Pelosi seemed to take action in response to other stories. (It was the second time Trump tweeted a promoted video from Pelosi. Twitter done nothing about that either).

Twitter has of course grown considerably over the years since the 2010 census and now has 152 million daily users only in the last months of 2019. The potential to have an impact on the presidential election and the polls is probably even greater than the was 10 years ago. But despite this increased awareness, the company’s efforts to control the dissemination of misinformation still seem largely reactive and rely too much on users to flag content that is problematic.