In the midst of Kansas’s controversial abortion rights debate, the anonymous text messages arriving on the eve of this week’s big referendum seemed clear enough. “Voting YES on the amendment will give women a choice.”
The only problem: It was a lie, texted Monday, one day before voters decided on an election amendment seen as the first test of voter sentiment since the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe against Wade. Conservative state voters with deep ties to the anti-abortion movement ended up rejecting the measure.
“We’ve certainly seen dirty tricks, but never this level of deception aimed at getting people to vote the opposite way to what they mean,” said Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a voter registration and engagement organization. young people in Kansas.
Misleading texts sent to the Kansas Democrats highlight the growing problem of political disinformation sent via automated text messaging, a ubiquitous communication system that presents new opportunities for those attempting to deceive voters.
To be sure, electoral initiatives are often confusing, sometimes on purpose, so voters will support a measure they actually oppose.
But text messages are emerging as an increasingly popular means of spreading disinformation about voting and elections. This reflects a broader embrace of text messaging by campaigns and political organizations, a trend that accelerated as the pandemic forced campaigns to find new ways to interact with voters.
People in the United States received nearly 6 billion political messages in 2021, according to an analysis by RoboKiller, a mobile phone app that allows users to block text and voice spam. This is after a steady increase during the 2020 election which saw political spam texts increase by 20% per month.
“There has been an explosion of political text messages since 2020 and the political messages have been around ever since,” said RoboKiller Vice President Giulia Porter.
Two days after the 2020 election, thousands of anonymous messages were sent to supporters of then President Donald Trump, claiming that election officials in Philadelphia were rigging the vote. The text urged recipients to show up where ballots were counted to “show their support” for Trump.
The anonymous texts were later linked to a messaging company run by one of Trump’s top campaign officials.
The same year, someone used text messages to spread false rumors about a national COVID-19 blockade. Federal officials later accused a foreign government of trying to fuel fear and division.
Text messaging can offer specific advantages over social media when it comes to spreading disinformation without a trace, according to Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who researches disinformation techniques.
People also view text messages in a different way than social media, Linvill said. Social media is designed to reach the widest possible audience, but text messages are sent to certain phone numbers. This suggests that the sender knows the recipient in some way and is specifically targeting that person.
“People aren’t that used to being wary of information on a text message,” Linvill said. “It’s more personal. Someone out there has your phone number and they are contacting you to contact you with this information.
While large social media companies have had mixed success in curbing disinformation on their platforms, text messaging is not moderated. Because they aim for maximum exposure, disinformation campaigns using social media are easier to spot, study and expose, while text messages are one-to-one private communications.
Software that allows groups to send hundreds or thousands of messages using fake numbers makes it even more difficult to discover the sender’s identity.
Messages sent to Kansas used a messaging platform built by Twilio, a communications company based in San Francisco. Twilio would not identify the customer who sent the messages, but a spokesperson said the sender was suspended from service for violating its disinformation rules.
The amendment to the vote asked Kansans to decide on a proposed change to the state constitution that would pave the way for its Republican-controlled legislature to more strictly regulate or ban abortion. A “yes” would have supported the amendment of the constitution to remove the right to abortion. A “no” was opposed to the modification of the state constitution, maintaining the right to abortion.
Lindsay Ford, associate director of a Kansas nonprofit voter engagement group called The Voter Network, noted that the texts have come at a critical time when someone trying to manipulate voters may have the better chance of success.
“This is when voters who aren’t super engaged start paying attention in the last two days before the election,” Ford said. “So if they’re looking for something and haven’t seen information anywhere else, it was the first or only message they got, I can see how that could lead people on the wrong path.”