Political campaigns

Why political campaigns are sending 3 billion text messages during this election

Last week, the Oklahoma State Elections Commission issued a warning about a scam text message claiming there had been changes to polling locations. The phone number the text came from was that of a male escort service.

It’s not new. In 2018, two weeks before the midterm elections, Michigan’s Monroe County warned of texts falsely claiming that many voters’ mail-in ballots remained “on hold.” Some of the texts came from “Pres. Trump” and directed recipients to what appeared to be an official Republican website. And in 2016, voter advocacy groups in Minnesota reported messages targeting Somali communities telling them to text when casting their ballot.

By next Tuesday, it is estimated that American voters will have received nearly 3 billion political text messages. With just over 234 million eligible voters, most Americans received a handful, and those in pivotal states or pivotal voting groups are overwhelmed by total flooding. Data is quite sparse, but political texts were not as popular during the last presidential election. A new class of tools enabling the mass sending of personalized SMS messages has been developed over the past four years in an attempt to exploit loopholes in communications and disclosure laws.

While it’s easy to assume that texts are boring and fairly pointless, new research from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin paints a much darker and more meaningful picture of the trend. The nature of peer-to-peer (P2P) messaging makes them “on the cusp of taking political messaging to even higher levels of intimacy and effectiveness, and, disturbingly, makes them factually unauditable.” by strangers,” says the study.

The newspaper claims that “campaigns are systematically, but intimately, moving their message to more private spaces than before.” And this more trusted, private and less regulated channel invites both highly effective campaigns and misinformation.

Automated and personalized disinformation

On Florida’s primary election day 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claiming that Byron Donalds, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in the primary election, had withdrawn from the election. The text message contained a screenshot of Donalds and his family with a fake headline about his campaign shutdown. The Donalds campaign blamed an opposing Republican, who had employed a conservative political consultant who had been accused of a similar tactic while working on Ted Cruz’s presidential bid in 2016. The study found that while both political camps use various forms of peer-to-peer messaging to contact potential voters, the disinformation campaigns identified by the researchers came from right-wing operators, as in the case of Donalds.

The reason some rely on these tactics is simple: using text messages to spread information, whether true or false, is very effective. Political texts are opened between 70 and 98% of the time, which is significantly higher than open rates for emails or responses to phone calls.

The study showed that political groups do in fact intend to engage in dialogues with users via text, in which responses can be narrated and used to build an even more data-rich profile of the person. He also pointed out that the detection of misinformation messages relies solely on recipients reporting the texts to official channels and that independent monitoring of information sent via SMS is nearly impossible.

However, what initially appears to be one-to-one communication may actually be one-to-many. Prominent texting companies like GetThru, Hustle, Opn Sesame, and Rumbleup have created features that allow campaigns to send large numbers of texts that appear to be personalized.

Write to your friends

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

The report states that the combination of texting, relational organizing and data-centric campaigning creates “large-scale, highly curated messaging from a source that can leverage established relationships with intended targets of ‘a way that is about to become more and more invasive”.

The escape game

Text messages currently exploit a loophole with the Federal Election Commission, which means they must not be sent with typical political disclosures or attached to an identity. The source of the texts can be further obscured when the numbers used belong to text messaging companies or contractors rather than the sponsor. But this, according to the report, is based on an outdated definition of texting which assumes that texting is low volume and is sent between individuals, rather than to high volume businesses or organizations.

The good news is that regulations on how political groups can use these types of messages are planned. The bad news is that political groups are already considering ways to circumvent a crackdown by experimenting with push notifications, potentially using Wallet passes, the systems for storing digital assets such as concert or plane tickets that are pre-installed in many smartphones. By leveraging them in the future, according to the study, “the Wallet Pass is an attempt to anticipate regulations and maintain continuity of influence and direct access to people’s phones.”