The real Census form will look a lot more like this, and a lot less like a Trump campaign website.
Enlarge / The real Census form will look a lot more like this, and a lot less like a Trump campaign website.

Facebook infamously has a broadly laissez-faire policy for political candidates. If you’re running for office, you can lie as much as you want in your paid and unpaid content—with one small catch. Anything that lies about voting or the census, such as sharing fake registration links or deliberately spreading incorrect polling dates, is prohibited. Even if it comes directly from the Trump campaign.

It just turns out that Facebook needs a lot of prodding—in the form of negative media attention—to follow through.

The site Popular Information first reported on the Trump campaign’s ads early yesterday. The sponsored posts, which appeared on the accounts of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, were paid for by the Trump Make America Great Again committee, a joint fundraising effort by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.

One ad Popular Information featured includes an image of a sheet of paper labeled “2020 census,” next to a picture of Trump giving his characteristic thumbs up, and it exhorts readers, “President Trump needs you to take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today.” It continues, “The information we gather from this survey will help us craft our strategies for YOUR CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT.”

Clicking through the ad directed readers to a website labeled as the “Certified Website of President Donald J. Trump,” Popular Information reported, billing itself as the “Official 2020 Congressional District Census.”

Not the census. No matter what it says.
Enlarge / Not the census. No matter what it says.

Popular Information pointed out to Facebook that the ads seem to violate the company’s bright-line policy prohibiting “misleading information about when and how to participate in the census,” but a spokesperson for the company at first disagreed. According to Facebook, since the campaign ads also referenced the campaign, it was clear they were not official Census advertising.

The report began to generate widespread attention, not just online but among lawmakers as well. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a Thursday news conference that she was “particularly annoyed” at Facebook, describing Trump’s ad as, “an absolute lie, a lie that is consistent with the misrepresentation policy of Facebook. But now they are messing with who we are as Americans.”

A few hours later, Facebook changed its tune. “Upon further review, these ads are currently being taken down given the policies in place to prevent confusion around the official US Census,” the company said. A spokesperson added, “There are policies in place to prevent confusion around the official US census, and this is an example of those being enforced.”

Americans actually will be able to respond to the Census online this year, for the first time, but the correct links to do so will not be distributed by a Facebook ad. Instructions for how to complete your form will be distributed by postal mail, according to the Census Bureau, with mail going out in the coming weeks so households have it by the official Census date of April 1.