Why political campaigns ship three billion texts on this election


Last week the Oklahoma State Election Board issued a warning of a fraudulent text message claiming there had been changes to polling stations. The phone number the text came from was for a male escort service.

That's not new. In 2018, two weeks before halftime, Monroe County, Michigan, issued a warning of texts falsely claiming that many voters' postal votes remained "excellent." Some of the lyrics were from “Pres. Trump ”and referred recipients to what appeared to be an official Republican website. And in 2016, voter protection groups in Minnesota reported messages to Somali communities asking them to text when they voted.

It is estimated that voters in the US will have received nearly 3 billion political text messages by next Tuesday. With just over 234 million eligible voters, most Americans have received a handful, and those in swing states or in major electoral groups are inundated with total deluge. The dates are tight, but political texts weren't that popular in the last presidential election. In the last four years a new class of tools has been developed that enable mass, personalized SMS and are intended to exploit loopholes in communication and disclosure laws.

While it's easy to assume the lyrics are annoying and pretty useless, new research from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin paints a much darker and more telling picture of the trend. The nature of peer-to-peer messaging (P2P) makes them "ready to take political news to an even higher level of intimacy and effectiveness and, disturbingly, makes it impossible for outsiders to actually scrutinize it," it said Study.

The paper claims that "campaigns are systematically but intimately shifting their messages to more private areas than before". And this more trustworthy, private, and less regulated channel encourages high-impact campaigns and disinformation.

Automated and personalized disinformation

On the day of the Florida primary 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, was out of the election. The text message included a screenshot of Donalds and his family with an incorrect headline about the end of his campaign. The Donalds campaign blamed an opposing Republican who hired a Conservative political adviser who was charged with similar tactics while working on Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential bid. The study found that both political sides use different forms of peer-to-peer messaging to contact potential voters. However, the disinformation campaigns identified by the researchers came from right-wing operators, as in Donald's case.

The reason some resort to this tactic is straightforward: using text messages to send information, whether true or false, is very effective. Political texts are opened 70-98% of the time, which is significantly higher than the opening rate of emails or answering phone calls.

The study showed that factions actually intend to enter into dialogues with users through text, in which responses can be recorded and used to create an even more data-rich profile of the person. It was also pointed out that the detection of disinformation messages depends solely on recipients reporting the texts to official channels – and that independent monitoring of the information sent via text is next to impossible.

What initially appears to be one-to-one communication, however, can actually be one-to-many. Prominent SMS companies like GetThru, Hustle, Opn Sesame and Rumbleup have developed features that allow campaigns to send a large number of texts that appear personalized.

Write to your friends

An important nuance of direct messaging is the built in intimacy and trust. In both the Biden and Trump campaigns, apps have been developed that require access to your contacts. The aim is to understand the networks of users and use existing relationships to disseminate information to their candidate. The Biden campaign offers users of their Vote Joe app a script that they can use, for example, to edit their own contacts via SMS. The result is a network of micro-influencers who can use campaign-generated language and priorities to convince friends and families behind closed doors.

The report states that the combination of SMS, relational organization, and data-centric campaign “creates mass, highly organized messaging from one source that is able to leverage an established relationship with intended goals in ways that may be increasing becomes invasive. "

The loophole game

Text messages currently use a loophole in the Bundestag Electoral Commission, which means that they do not have to be provided with typical political information or an identity. The source of texts can be further obscured if the numbers used belong to SMS companies or subcontractors. rather than the sponsor party. However, according to the report, this is based on an outdated definition of SMS which assumes that the texts are low volume and sent between individuals rather than high volume by companies or organizations.

The good news is that regulation is expected on how political groups can use this type of news. The bad news is that the factions are already looking for ways to circumvent a practice by experimenting with push notifications – possibly with the help of wallet passes, the systems for storing digital assets such as concert or flight tickets that are in many smartphones are pre-installed. By using this information in the future, the study states, "The Wallet Pass is an attempt to prevent regulations and maintain continuous influence and direct access to people's phones."


Steven Gregory