Who counts the counters? Conspiracies about the census

By: matthew ross&
April 21 2022

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Who counts the counters? Conspiracies about the census

When the smiling census enumerator comes to your door every ten years (or, in some countries, five), do you accept your task willingly or balk at the hassle and threat of fines? Are you happy to be counted or suspicious of what the government might be planning on doing with your data? 

The act of undertaking a census – counting people and collecting useful information about them, usually done by governments – has existed for centuries. The data collected by censuses have done much to shape nation-states worldwide. Thus, the census could be considered the first example of "big data,” according to Andrew Whitby in his book The Sum of the People: How the Census Shaped Nations From the Ancient World to the Modern Age. The census was generally used to collect taxes and conscript armies in antiquity, but its uses have significantly expanded over the centuries. 

In many countries, the census is a part of the very makeup of the state. In the U.S. Constitution, the framers established the census in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, referred to as the Enumeration Clause. Governments use census data in various ways, including determining representative seats in government, tracking societal changes, developing policies, and apportioning resources, all of which can be considered crucial to the running of a state. Census data can also be used by private citizens, such as entrepreneurs looking to make informed business decisions or reporters using data for journalism

Today, national census bureaus take pains to assure citizens that their data will be anonymous and used only for statistical purposes, often under penalty of law. However, the history of the census contains examples of data being used in controversial or outright oppressive ways. Suspicion, distrust, and even rejection of the census can be based in our fears, real or imagined, and our attitude towards it says a lot about our trust in our governments. 

The census has always been about power and not just the state's power over its people. Citizens' participation in the census – or exclusion from it – has likewise been about the power of representation. How people take the census, and whether they take it at all, are political acts. It would be a mistake to view the census as merely a top-down exercise of government authority. As Whitby writes, "It is neither wholly of the state nor of the people but exists as a continuous negotiation between them." 

Who counts?

The census asks who makes up a nation, so naturally who’s counted, and how, matters to the government and the people themselves. 

In the U.S. Constitution, the Enumeration Clause lays out who was and was not to be counted at the time it was written: free persons, "Indians not taxed," and "three-fifths of all other Persons," referring to enslaved Africans as decided in the notorious three-fifths compromise. Some Americans counted more than others, and this way was beneficial for the slave-holding Southern states while not entirely granting legitimacy to enslaved people.

With census population data often tied to political representation in government, it should be no surprise that controversies persist today. The U.S. Census counts prisoners residing in the areas where they are incarcerated, helping to determine the size of voting districts. However, felons in the U.S. have no right to vote and thus have no political voice, a phenomenon known as "prison gerrymandering." 

Many marginalized groups continue to fight for their right to be counted in the census. Political campaigns and conflicts routinely occur surrounding questions over gender identity, sexuality, and religion, among other hot button topics. For example, the recent Irish census has seen humanist and atheist groups continue a long-running campaign to promote the answer of "No religion" on the form when asked about faith. The consequences of an increased percentage of the Irish population eschewing religion could impact a state that relies heavily on the Catholic Church for education. Trans people have long argued for recognition on census forms and were successful in having their identities included for the first time on the 2022 Scottish census. Meanwhile, gender-critical feminists in Ireland and Scotland are using this year's censuses to proclaim their opposition to public recognition of trans people by encouraging the answer "Believer in Biology" on the census question about religion. 

Saying No

Conversely, refusing to be counted is also political. Ahead of the U.K.'s 1911 census, Emmaline Pankhurst called upon all suffragettes to refuse to participate, claiming they shouldn't be counted if women didn't "count." Many women were counted regardless of the protest, but the boycott drew further attention to the cause of women's suffrage.

In the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Green Party called for non-participation in a national census of West Germany called by Helmut Kohl’s government with pamphlets that read “Only Sheep Are Counted.” Promoters of the boycott raised concerns that the census data would be shared with the police to identify political activists in the name of fighting terrorism. The police response to the boycott involved breaking into homes and offices to seize pamphlets. After a police raid of a boycott office in Kreuzberg, rioting broke out that led to 100 people injured, 51 people jailed, and millions of dollars in property damage from looting and arson.

In 2011, the U.K.'s Office of National Statistics gave U.S. arms company Lockheed Martin a £150 million contract to conduct the census. This sparked an outcry and an organized call for boycotts, principally by left-wing groups such as the Stop the War Coalition. Some cited religious or political objections alongside fears that their data would be misused or even handed over to the post-9/11 U.S. security state. Around the same time in the United States, right-wing politicians and pundits called for a boycott of the census during the Obama administration, with flames being fanned by the anti-government Tea Party. This led to fears that the census count would be lower than expected, and that violence against enumerators might increase. According to the Census Bureau, there was no discernable trend in their data that pointed to this boycott being successful.

In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau surveyed distrust in the census and found that a quarter of respondents cited fears that the government would use their answers to harm them.

In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau surveyed distrust in the census and found that a quarter of respondents cited fears that the government would use their answers to harm them. A quarter of respondents also cited data privacy and protection concerns, while 10 percent assumed the government would use the information to track down undocumented people.

In the U.S., census response rates have declined since the 1970s. A 2020 survey by the Census Bureau showed that 28 percent of respondents were “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” that the Census Bureau would not keep the data confidential, while 24 percent responded that they were “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” that their information would be shared with other government agencies. Fears that sensitive personal data will be shared with other areas of the government–for example, immigration, law enforcement, or tax authorities – are commonplace among people who resist taking the census, no matter how the various census bureaus may insist that the data is legally only used for anonymous statistics.

In 2018, the Trump administration pushed for a citizenship question to be included in the 2020 U.S. census, which critics and immigrant rights organizations saw as an intimidation tactic meant to suppress the count of undocumented immigrants and thus reduce the political power of areas where they reside. Census population data is used to draw voting districts. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the question, and the citizenship question was left off the 2020 census.

An Exercise in Tyranny?

Fear leads to conspiracy theories, and the census is an inevitable inspiration for them. As so many conspiracy theories invoke authoritarian governments, the census can appear as a highly invasive, sinister probing into the lives of citizens toward nefarious ends. Claims reemerge with every counting cycle, often promoted by politicians, pundits, and alt-media figures hoping to capitalize on this very public exercise in government involvement in our lives.

An InfoWars.com article from 2009 alleged that the recent adoption of GPS devices by census enumerators would lead to the U.S. military marking American homes as military targets for Hellfire missiles and Predator drones if they were deemed enemies of the state. A failed prediction from InfoWars is not uncommon. Still, it underscores anxieties around a then-new technology that has since become ubiquitous and is likely in the pockets of all but the most hardened Luddites in the conspiracy community. 

The Irish Times noted a recent uptick in conspiracy theory-informed responses to census numerator visits in an article before Census Night 2022. Conspiracists cited fears the government would force households to take in Ukrainian refugees based on a question about the number of bedrooms in Irish residences. On social media, videos have circulated showing census enumerators hearing talking points from the Freeman on the Land movement, itself an ideological cousin to the loose group of American and U.K. anti-government activists known as Sovereign Citizens. They generally reject standard legal theories and substitute them with arcane pseudo-legal practices.

In Greece, conspiracy theorists have objected to the census believing that the government will use it to send authorities to the homes of anti-vaxxers. Australia also faced backlash from conspiracy theorists in its attempt to carry out the 2021 census. A local QAnon adherent suggested that objectors write on census envelopes, "WE THE PEOPLE YOUR MASTERS, ARE AWARE THE GOVERNMENT AND ALL ITS DEPARTMENTS AND THE MEDIA HAVE BEEN INFILTRATED BY SATANIC PEDOPHILES, EXPECT US WE ARE COMING FOR YOU." Another Australian conspiracy theorist promoted the idea of listing their religion as "unvaccinated" in protest.

Despite many objecting to it in the first place, conspiracy theorists often use census data to push their own narratives. Such data is frequently invoked by those who peddle the racist "Great Replacement" conspiracy theory, pointing to demographic changes in western countries as proof that evil elites are out to eliminate the white race. A prominent neo-Nazi website promoted a scheme in 2019 to urge followers to sign up to become enumerators so that they could personally report undocumented immigrants to law enforcement. To inform on households would be a breach of an enumerator's lifetime oaths to protect confidentiality and would be punishable with a steep fine or jail time. Conspiracy theorists and political partisans have also used census data to question the voter rolls in the 2020 U.S. election, which had been plagued by conspiracy theories since well before the results were announced.

Are the Paranoid Among Us Right to Worry?

However, it is not necessary to look to conspiracy theories to find things to fear about the tyrannical possibilities inherent to the census. History gives examples of misuses that led to terrible harm.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this was Nazi Germany's use of census data collected in 1933, enabled by punchcard technology developed by IBM, to identify Jews, Roma, and others that would be targeted for extermination. In the United States after Pearl Harbor, data from the 1940 census was used to enable the rounding up and internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans, beginning in 1942. The Second War Powers Act of 1941 had removed the confidentiality protections, paving the way for the U.S. Census Bureau's data to be used for the forced incarceration of thousands of Japanese people, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, without due process. Using this data was legal at the time, and confidentiality was reinstated and strengthened in the years after the war, but it remains a black mark on the reputation of the Census Bureau. 

The census has been used during other wartimes as well. Historian Margo Anderson has written about how census data from 1910 was used by the U.S. Army to find draft dodgers, then known as "slackers." After 9/11, the Census Bureau provided data on Arab Americans to the Department of Homeland Security, including lists of populations by zip codes sorted by nationality. This was also legal, and the data was anonymous, but civil liberties and Arab American groups cried foul and decried the breach of trust in a time of heightened tension.

The digital age has only led to even more questions about how personal census information is used. Concerns over data privacy erupted in Australia when the Australian Bureau of Statistics' website was allegedly hit by DDoS attacks on census night, which kept millions from filling out their forms. As this was the first year Australia had opted to take a primarily online approach to enumeration, some had serious concerns about data privacy. Even though no data was compromised, it was an embarrassment for the government, which had touted digital innovations and savings. It also cost $30 million. This debacle further stoked fears about whether personal data can be entrusted to statistical authorities.

The act of census taking can be dangerous business. Enumerators sometimes face outright hostility, harassment, or even threats of violence, sometimes whipped up by pundits or politicians with anti-government messages. For example, in 2010, U.S. enumerators reported 700 violent incidents, which was a four-fold increase from the previous count.

The examples of Nazi Germany and Japanese internment in particular offer powerful rebuttals to the notion that the census is inherently anonymous and can never be used against so-called enemies of the state. What our governments do and what our laws allow matter. Governments and laws can also change, and not always to the benefit of the populace.

The Census is Power

Some question the need for a census in our data-saturated world. Several countries have ended the census altogether and now use a constantly updating population register system instead, leading some to believe that the census may soon become a thing of the past.

At least in the Anglophone world, the census is now firmly ensconced in the culture war. Participation in the census – and objection to it – has always carried political valence. For any census to be effective, it requires trust, something in short supply in many places around the world. Regardless of the reason, nonresponse to the census distorts the data and leads to undercounting, a perennial issue for census bureaus striving for accuracy. Undercounting means less government representation, and less funding to areas where it may be sorely needed. 

The census continues to be a potent exercise in how power works in our world and what it means to live somewhere and be seen, if at a statistical, anonymous distance. When states put our data to good use while protecting our rights to individual privacy, our societies are better positioned to meet the needs of the people and the challenges of the future. When states misuse our data, it gives credence to conspiracy theorists who profit from weaponizing our often justly-earned distrust of government.

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