Why political campaigns are sending 3 billion texts in this election

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Last week, the Oklahoma State Election Board issued a warning about a fraudulent text message that claimed there had been changes to polling places. The phone number that the text came from was for a male escort service. 

This is not new. In 2018, two weeks ahead of the midterms, Monroe County in Michigan warned of texts that falsely claimed that many voters’ absentee ballots remained “outstanding”. Some of the texts were from “Pres. Trump” and directed recipients to what appeared to be an official Republican website. And in 2016, voter protection groups in Minnesota reported messages targeting Somali communities that told them to text in their vote. 

By next Tuesday, it’s estimated that voters in the US will have received almost 3 billion political text messages. With just over 234 million eligible voters, most Americans have received a handful, and those in swing states or in pivotal voting groups are getting clobbered with a total inundation. The data are quite scarce, but political texts were not as popular during the last presidential election. A new class of tools that allow for mass, personalized texting have been developed in the last four years that seek to exploit gaps in communications and disclosure laws.  

Though it’s easy to assume the texts are annoying and fairly useless, new research out of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, paints a much darker and meaningful picture of the trend. The nature of peer-to-peer (P2P) messages make them “poised to bring political messaging to even higher levels of intimacy and efficacy, and, disturbingly, render them factually impossible to audit by outsiders,” the study claims. 

The paper claims that “campaigns are systematically, but intimately, shifting their messaging to more private spaces than before”. And this more trusted, more private and less-regulated channel invites highly effective campaigning and disinformation alike. 

Automated and personalized disinformation

On the day of Florida’s primary election back in August, residents of the 19th Congressional District received text messages falsely claiming that Byron Donalds, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in the primary election, had dropped out of the election. The text message contained a screenshot of Donalds and his family with a fake headline about his campaign’s discontinuation. The Donalds campaign placed blame on an opposing Republican, who had employed a conservative political consultant who had been accused of a similar tactic when he worked on Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid. The study found that while both political sides are using various forms of peer-to-peer messaging to contact potential voters, the disinformation campaigns that the researchers identified came from right-wing operators, as in Donalds case.

The reason some lean on these tactics is straightforward: Using text messages to broadcast information, whether true or false, is highly effective. Political texts get opened anywhere from 70-98% of the time, which is significantly higher than email open rates or answers to phone calls. 

The study showed that political groups actually intend to enter into dialogues with users via text, in which responses can be chronicled and used to build an even more data-rich profile of the person. It also pointed out that the detection of disinformation messages relies solely on recipients reporting the texts to official channels—and that independent monitoring of the information sent by text is nearly impossible.

What initially appears to be one-to-one communication may in fact be one-to-many, however. Prominent texting companies like GetThru, Hustle, Opn Sesame and Rumbleup have created  functions that allow campaigns to send vast numbers of texts that appear to be personalized.

Text your friends

An important nuance of direct messaging is the intimacy and trust built in. Both the Biden and Trump campaigns have developed apps that ask for access to your contacts, and their goal is to understand the networks of users and draw on existing relationships to push information about their candidate. The Biden campaign provides users of their Vote Joe app with a script that they can tweak to text their own contacts, for example. The result is a network of micro-influencers who can use campaign-created language and priorities to persuade friends and families behind closed doors.  

The report says that the combination of texting, relational organizing and data-centric campaigning creates “mass-scaled, highly organized messaging from a source that is able to leverage established rapport with the intended targets in ways that are poised to become increasingly invasive.”

The loophole game

Text messages currently exploit a loophole with the Federal Election Commission which means they don’t have to be sent with typical political disclosures or attached to an identity The source of texts can be obscured even further when the numbers used belong to texting companies or subcontractors, rather than the sponsoring party. But this, according to the report, this is based on an outdated definition of texting that assumes texts are low-volume and get sent between individuals, rather than high volume from companies or organizations. 

The good news is that regulation about how political groups can use this kind of messaging is anticipated. The bad news is that political groups are already planning for ways around a crackdown by experimenting with push notifications—potentially using Wallet passes, the systems for storing digital assets like concert or plane tickets that are pre-installed in many smartphones. By harnessing these in future, the study says, “the Wallet Pass is an attempt to pre-empt regulations and maintain a continuity of influence and direct access to people’s phones.”

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