The census, once the relatively uncontroversial collection of information for the provision of public services, has become the latest antagonist for Ireland’s small but vocal conspiracy theorist community.
Misinformation about the census, which takes place on April 3rd, is being spread on large social media groups which established during the pandemic to oppose measures such as lockdowns and masks.
With these measures in the rearview mirror – for now at least – some of these groups have pivoted to other causes, including the idea that the census is a means of Government coercion.
These Covid-19 conspiracy groups, on platforms such as Facebook and Telegram, have provided a ready-made infrastructure for the spread of this census misinformation to tens of thousands of social media users.
It is not just Ireland that is experiencing a newfound distrust of the census. Authorities in the US, UK, Greece and Australia have been battling an upsurge in census-related conspiracy theories in recent months and years.
The Irish census is being conducted by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) which, it is understood, has been monitoring the spread of misinformation online.
In relative terms, the number of people who believe in these conspiracy theories is very small but the issue has caused some concern among officials.
The most prominent census misinformation relates to a new question on the 2022 form asking about the number of bedrooms in a house. Conspiracy theorists claim this is to allow the Government to assess how many migrants or refugees homeowners will be forced to take in. The Ukrainian refugee crisis has only added fuel to this theory.
It is also common to see the bedroom question on the census form linked to a Bill put forward by People Before Profit seeking to enshrine housing in the constitution as the 39th Amendment. One prominent far-right social media personality has falsely claimed the Bill “will turn all private property into housing stock owned by the State” and that the census is a way of determining if people’s homes are too big for their needs. There is no mention of the fact that the People Before Profit Bill is highly unlikely to become law in its current form. A Government commission is examining how a right to housing should be put to a referendum.
This link between the bedroom question and the housing Bill has also been made by a group called Lawyers for Justice Ireland, which has more than 12,000 followers on Facebook. The group has attempted to organise a mass letter-writing campaign to officials suggesting the Government should suspend the census until a future date.
“The government are now going to seek tabs on the people who have extra rooms in your homes any extra living rooms sitting rooms bedrooms conservatories reasonable sized sheds will be occupied by the high influx of migrants coming to our country,” reads another version of the theory shared in an anti-lockdown group with more than 4,300 members.
The CSO is prevented by law from sharing identifiable data, including with other State agencies. Data is only shared or published in anonymised statistical form.
While the question on bedrooms is new, previous censuses have asked how many rooms a home contains. The bedroom question was added “to provide extra insight into the levels of overcrowding in homes”, a CSO spokesman said.
Census conspiracy theories sometimes accompany racist or anti-migrant sentiments. One far-right activist has complained about the television advertisement for the census showing too many non-white people, while another believes the inclusion of Roma people under the heading of "white" is a "trick to fudge statistics".
Much of this misinformation is accompanied by nonsensical legal theories common in the Freeman of the Land movements, which are active in several parts of Ireland. These movements variously claim that governments are corporations, that citizens do not have to do anything unless they actively consent – like pay taxes – and that almost all laws are invalid.
“Our reasons for urging people to not fill out the census is because we want no contract with the government that has actively tried to destroy our people and our way of life over the last two year,” said a group called Anti-Lockdown Ireland.
“If the census people come to your front door pull out your phone and start recording them,” another person said in a widely shared video which has been viewed many thousands of times. “When they tell you you have to fill out the census, you tell them ‘show me the contract with my name and the other party’s name to say I consented to take part in this year’s census’.”
Irish conspiracy theory groups are not fully united on the matter, however. One prominent activist, who has been involved in protesting outside the homes of politicians and health officials over Covid-19 restrictions and has threatened to perform “arrests” on them, has said people should fill out the census.
“I believe we have friends in the Central Statistics Office. Ok, they may have had the clamps put on them by the Government for the duration of the pandemic. But I do believe those clamps have been lifted,” he told his followers.
These sentiments have drawn an angry reaction from others, including one woman who organised some of the bigger anti-lockdown rallies during the pandemic.
“The same people who have been at the anti-Government rallies for the last two years are now telling you that the guys in the Census aren’t as bad as the other guys and to trust the Government when it comes to the Census. That’s really questionable. This is the Book of Revelations, people are revealing themselves.”
It is difficult to gauge what impact this rhetoric is having on the doorsteps as more than 5,000 census enumerators visit some 2 million homes across the country.
Some census enumerators have complained about abuse from residents but the main gripes seem to relate to pay and working conditions. The CSO says its aware of reports of abuse being shared on social media but that “overall, the public are very supportive of the census and enumerators have made excellent progress”.
“The primary difficulties encountered by census enumerators relate to accessing residents in apartments, gated homes or homes with locked post boxes,” a spokesman said.
The rate of people refusing to complete the census will not be known until after April 3rd. Previous years have seen a “very low incidence of individuals refusing to accept census forms”, the CSO said.
However, it warned that anyone who refuses to fill out a form may face prosecution.
After every census a handful of offenders are prosecuted, mainly to remind people that it is a legal obligation to complete them. In the last three censuses, 14 people have been prosecuted, the CSO said, receiving fines of €150-€1,700.