The biggest election disinformation event of the 2022 midterm primaries: Text messages

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The biggest election propaganda incident of the 2022 midterm primaries was not an elaborate Russian troll scheme that was run on Twitter or Facebook. It was some text messages.

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On the night before Kansas was scheduled to vote on a historic statewide referendum last month, voters watched Lies about how to vote Pop up on their phone. An explosion of old-fashioned text messages falsely told her that a “yes” vote protected abortion access in her state, when the opposite was true—a yes vote would cut abortion protections from the state’s constitution.

The message attempt and the referendum both failed. But the campaign shows how easily a bad actor can take advantage of text messages—which still rely on the same basic technology as when they were developed in the 1990s—to spread propaganda, with few consequences. And while there is now a cottage industry and federal agencies targeting election propaganda on social media, there is no comparable effort for texts.


Scott Goodstein, who created the bulk text messaging tool for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and has since advocated Calling for strong reforms to curb the potential misuse of political text spam, Said is preventing other political groups from spamming voters with disinformation.

“It is very easy, and there is no real cost or consequence for a bad actor to upload very, very targeted voter-file-based groups and spread misinformation, misinformation, horrific rumors,” Goodstein said.

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“Kansas was only foreshadowing the future,” he said.

In many ways, it is harder than ever to spread election propaganda on American social media platforms. Since the 2016 election, when Russia’s “troll factory” went unchecked, Facebook and Twitter have begun to take the issue more seriously, hiring teams that regularly remove that kind of content. It eliminates synced accounts, forwards misinformation and informs users about basic civil matters such as how and where to vote. They are aided by the FBI, which in 2017 formed a dedicated unit, the Foreign Influence Task Force, to suggest them for foreign online propaganda.

But there is no company or regulatory agency that monitors the content of all the billions of text messages sent every day. US phone carriers employ some anti-spam measures, but they are clearly limited: More Americans are filing complaints about spam and scam text messages with the Federal Trade Commission this year, an agency spokesperson said. told NBC News, and 2022 is likely to be the first year he brushed off complaints about phone calls.

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Of the three major US phone carriers, T-Mobile did not respond to a request for comment, and AT&T and Verizon sent questions to CTIA, an industry group. CTIA senior vice president Nick Ludlum said in an emailed statement that by design, “wireless carriers do not pre-screen the content of their customers’ text messages.”

Clemson University professor Darren Linville, who studies disinformation, said there has been ample data-based research of disinformation on social media from academia and third-party social analytics companies, but there has never been a way to do a comparative study of text messages. Has not been.

“What are you going to do with text messages? There’s no tool to collect it all, and there shouldn’t be,” Linville said.

“It’s an underappreciated strategy, and I think it’s becoming more popular than in the past,” he said. “It’s really hard to measure.”

Federal restrictions on political text messages were eased just before the 2020 election. One of the last major acts of the FCC during the Trump administration was make it easy For sending text messages for political campaigns, even numbers do not call listProvided that every message is sent by a person and not by an automated system.

But campaigns have developed an ingenious solution that sends those messages almost as fast as if they were automated, said Kevin Bingley, founder of Trust Digital, a conservative digital political outreach company in Ohio.

“I don’t think people are breaking that rule. I really don’t,” Bingley said. “The way they go around it, they have a warehouse or just a team of people who are there with iPads. are sitting together.”

“I can schedule 10,000 voters to send one, and it takes them a few hours to get through it, but there is literally an office park full of people sitting there sending messages manually all at once. pressing a button for it,” Bingley said.

Bingley said he sees little action from the major telecom providers on this front.

“Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and others — why are they allowing this to happen? It’s something I’ve thought about a lot,” he said. “Of course they have customers constantly complaining about these unwanted text messages that they’re receiving. I think it’s very difficult for them to make a profit.”

It is not clear whether political groups spreading text message propaganda will face any consequences. In the Kansas case, the messages were delivered through Twilio, a San Francisco-based company that dominates the US bulk text-messaging market. a Washington Post investigation They found they had come through an anti-abortion activist, Tim Heulskamp, ​​who used Alliance Forge, a Nevada digital campaign company, to send them. Neither Huelskamp nor Alliance Forge responded to requests for comment from NBC News, but Huelskamp Kansas told reflector That there was “no evidence” that he was behind the texts.

A spokeswoman for the Kansas Government Ethics Commission, the agency that oversees political campaigns in the state, declined to confirm or deny whether anyone’s texts are under investigation, but said the state’s laws should be passed on to political groups. Text messages are not required to be signed if they were not endorsing a candidate and that there is no state law that requires such messages to be accurate.

A Twilio spokesperson declined to comment on the record regarding the threat of its customers spreading political propaganda. But while Twilio disabled the numbers it used to spam Kansas after receiving a complaint, the company, like the major phone carriers, doesn’t make a habit of pre-screening texts before they’re sent. according to this PolicyIt is up to its customers to comply with all relevant rules and regulations.

To date, there is no evidence of a foreign country masterminding a major text messaging campaign against the Americans, but Ukraine has accused Russia of repeatedly sending batch text messages to its citizens since the start of the invasion to quell terror. to be spread and urge them to blame,

a unclassified report The 2020 election from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that countries such as Russia and Iran spent little time trying to attack US electoral infrastructure and instead devoted resources to influence. Two weeks before the 2020 election, the FBI accused Iran of masterminding a scheme that sent emails to Florida voters asking them to change their party registration. Iran denied the claims.

“It is entirely reasonable to expect opponents and those who undermine democracy to experiment with new tactics to divide us,” Sen. Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC News in a statement. “We saw some attempts to send misleading information or outright misinformation in the US during the 2020 election, and I expect this problem to get worse in the future.”

Goodstein, a former Obama campaign staffer, said he expects a misinformation campaign to target minority and low-income voters, who historically face a lot. Voter Suppression Rates,

“These are going to be marginal voters who are being deliberately marginalised,” he said. “It’s centuries old.”

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