City Club Missoula: U.S. Census officials fear social media disinformation campaigns

Mary Craigle of the Montana Department of Commerce and Karen Murphy of the U.S. Census Bureau fielded questions from City Club Missoula members on Monday. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The 2020 U.S. Census can bring a little more funding and political clout to Montana if residents are willing to answer 10 simple questions.

The census is more than a half-year away, but groundwork is already being laid to ensure that everyone is counted by April 1, 2020.

Part of that work is answering questions about the census, which is what Mary Craigle of the Montana Department of Commerce and Karen Murphy of the U.S. Census Bureau did at the July meeting of City Club Missoula on Monday.

The complete census is conducted only every 10 years, and people can forget how important it can be. So Craigle and Murphy are trying to set up several “complete count committees” across the state to do outreach, especially in more rural areas.

“Missoula County has stepped forward and they’re running with it. We’re very thankful for that,” Murphy said. “It’s a tough topic right now, No. 1 because it’s the federal government. In rural Montana, it’s difficult to sell folks on giving information to the federal government. So we’ve worked to educate on privacy rules and what’s at stake. Dollars go a long way in rural Montana, and it’s important to realize that.”

Craigle said Montana receives about $2 billion in federal dollars every year for a variety of services – health, highway construction, law enforcement – based on the last census in 2010. But in 2000, more than 14,000 people weren’t counted in Montana, and the state didn’t collect between $21 million and $49 million a year in federal funding because of the shortfall, Craigle said.

“This is tax dollars that you pay that should be coming back to you,” Craigle said. “And you don’t live that for one year – you have to live with it for 10.”

Montana also stands to gain more of a voice in Congress. The House of Representatives is limited to 435 members, so every 10 years, some states lose representatives while others gain based on the census.

“It’s all based on a mathematical formulation of population. Last time, Montana was fifth in terms of getting another seat. We would have needed about 10,000 more people,” Craigle said. “Where they’re anticipating the gains now, Montana is right there at the top. We would be the first state to ever lose a congressperson and then regain a congressperson. That’s a lot at stake for us.”

Counting every person in the nation takes a lot of money and manpower. Craigle said it will cost $18 billion, and around 500,000 Americans – around 1,000 in Montana – will be hired to deliver postcards and knock on doors if residents don’t respond by the April 1 Census Day. So the more people who respond after receiving a notification, the less tax money will be spent on tracking them down.

One City Club member asked why the Census Bureau didn’t do a less expensive study rather than a full census.

“It’s required by the U.S. Constitution,” Murphy said. “It’s the sixth sentence in the Constitution, and it’s the first thing in the Constitution that directs the U.S. government to do something.”

We’ve come a long way since the first census taken in 1790, and this year, providing information is even easier. Residents need to answer only 10 simple questions per household, and for the first time, they can do it online, in addition to providing answers over the phone or filling in a paper form.

But the switch to online information raises questions of digital security. Laura Maedche of Blackfoot Communications asked whether the information could be hacked.

Craigle said the U.S. Census Bureau is partnering with tech giants such as Google and Amazon to ensure the data is secure. She added that the information people provide is and always has been confidential, whether it’s digital or analogue. It’s made available only after 75 years have passed.

Confidentiality is a big concern, so it’s the thing that census opponents or scammers will likely target with fake claims, Craigle said. Such efforts have already begun; a few months ago, a flyer designed to look like it was from the Census Bureau was sent out asking for money.

Add in the fact that it’s an election year with all the political posturing that comes with it, and the U.S. Census Bureau is going to have its hands full trying to maintain its message.

“Social media is playing such a major role in the dissemination of the news that it is a huge concern for the census,” Craigle said. “I have no concerns about confidentiality. The only thing I worry about is misinformation campaigns, people putting out information about the census that is inaccurate. We will jump on these situations as quickly as possible.”