Election Propaganda Texts Are Completely Out of Control

Social media platforms crack down on disinformation, so political groups are turning to text messaging, where regulations and oversight are almost non-existent.
October 29, 2020, 1:29pm
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

As if the fear of Kremlin-backed campaigns altering the outcome of the election, or extremist groups fomenting anger on right-wing forums was not enough to give U.S. voters sleepless nights, now they have another threat to worry about: disinformation by text.

As researchers, journalists, academics, and social media platforms closely monitor posts and status updates for any signs of disinformation and coordinated campaigns, Republicans — and to a lesser extent Democrats — have turned to text messaging, a platform where regulations and oversight are almost non-existent.

Last month, Facebook rejected an ad from American Principles Project, a conservative PAC, which attacked transgender inclusion policies. Facebook said the ad contained misleading language.

But that didn’t stop American Principles Project. Instead, the PAC paid Rumble Up, a conservative company offering texting services, to send out text messages targeting voters in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. 

The message read: “Joe Biden endorsed giving 8 and 10-year-olds sex-change treatments. This is way too extreme for me. I can’t support him.” This baseless claim misrepresented comments Biden made during a recent town hall where he condemned discrimination against transgender kids.

The sender of the message was obscured to make it look like it came from an unnamed “Democratic volunteer.” It was accompanied by a video clip that is edited misleadingly to misrepresent Biden's position on gender confirmation treatment for young children. To date, Rumble Up has been paid $58,000 by the PAC.

The message is just a tiny part of a massive surge in text messages sent to voters in the weeks ahead of the election, according to new research from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

“With social media platforms cracking down on misinformation and ramping up fact-checking, political actors are moving their efforts to more private, unregulated spaces such as text messaging to avoid such regulations. In this private realm of communication, content moderation is virtually nonexistent, allowing for the dissemination of false or misleading information, such as what was featured in these text messages from APP,” researchers at the Center said in a new report.

It was the 2016 Trump campaign that first spotted the power of messages sent directly to voters’ phones, using them to great effect, particularly in swing states.

But four years on, the volume and sophistication of the text message campaigns have evolved dramatically.

In September, 2.6 billion political messages were sent in the U.S., according to Robokiller, a company that blocks automated phone calls and texts. That was a 400% increase over June. Two weeks ago, the company predicted the final weeks of the campaign would see an even bigger surge, with over 3 billion more messages sent.

And while Democrats sent over 900 million messages in December, that was dwarfed by the 1.8 billion messages sent by Republicans.

As well as a higher volume of messages, companies have also developed ways to send out texts en masse, but at the same time personalize them to individual voters, making them much more effective.

And political texts get opened up to 98% of the time, significantly higher than email open rates or answers to phone calls.

Here’s what else is happening in the world of election disinformation.

Another lame-duck hearing

Listening to Ted Cruz during the Big Tech hearing in Congress on Wednesday, it would be easy to believe that Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, is personally responsible for the poor showing of Republicans in polls across the country.

“Who the hell elected you?” Cruz spat virtually at Dorsey, who appeared Shaman-like from the other side of the country, sporting an impressive COVID-beard and a nose ring.

The reason Cruz, the president, and most of the rest of the GOP are angry at the Big Tech companies right now is that in recent years those companies have been forced to implement much stricter rules against those who use their platforms to spread lies.

And Wednesday’s hearing was convened to discuss just this. 

The future of Section 230, the provision that grants tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter immunity from prosecution over the content posted by their users, is one of the most important questions being considered right now.

Wednesday’s hearing was designed to discuss whether Section 230 law should be updated, with the heads of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and should have been a perfect opportunity to make some progress on the matter.

Instead, what we got was partisan grandstanding, a lot of focus on Dorsey’s beard, and clear evidence that almost none of the senators involved knew how to pronounce the name of Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai.

It has been shown over and over again that Conservative voices like Cruz benefit disproportionately from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but that didn’t stop Republicans on the panel from complaining.

“Mr. Dorsey, your platform allows foreign dictators to post propaganda, typically without restriction,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MISS), the Commerce Committee chairman said. “Yet you typically restrict the president of the United States.”

Wicker followed up with another question about why Trump was being targeted.

“You routinely restrict the president of the United States,” Wicker said. “How does a claim by Chinese communists that the U.S. military is to blame for COVID stay up for two months without a fact check and the president’s tweet about the security of mail-in ballots get labeled instantly?” 

Tucker Carlson’s “the dog ate my homework” excuse

On Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson announced that earlier this week, his team secured documents from the laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden from a “source.”

What a scoop, viewers probably thought, only to be told in the next breath that Carlson’s team had mailed the documents from New York to Los Angeles on Monday, but that the package never arrived.

Carlson said the delivery company has conducted a search but had come up with nothing. Even though he had no evidence, Carlson heavily suggested foul play.

What he didn’t explain: why didn’t his team email the documents to him? Or make copies? Have they heard of a scanner? A fax machine? No? Ah well, guess we’ll just have to let the QAnon conspiracy theorists do their best to come up with a viable explanation for what happened!

Republicans didn’t want Facebook registering voters

First, a caveat. Facebook says it’s helped register 4.4 million voters. Mark Zuckerberg even repeated this claim at Wednesday’s hearing. But Facebook is not saying how it calculated this figure, and there is no real way of verifying it. 

But it is true that Facebook made a concerted effort to get its users to vote and no matter how many people that reached, it should be commended. 

Expect, it seems, if you are a Republican lawmaker. Buzzfeed News reported on Wednesday that six GOP secretaries of state (from Alabama, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia) sent Zuckerberg a letter in September to ask him to discontinue the project. 

“While such goals may be laudable on their face, the reality is that the administration of elections is best left to the states,” read the letter, obtained by Common Cause through a public records request. “[Facebook’s] Voting Information Center is redundant and duplicative of what we, as chief election officials, have been doing for decades.”

The move was not hugely surprising given that the Trump campaign digital director Gary Coby hit out at Facebook’s plan when it was announced, claiming without evidence that it would favor Biden over his boss