In the midst of Kansas’ contentious abortion rights debate, the anonymous text messages that arrived on the eve of this week’s big referendum seemed pretty clear. “Voting YES on the Amendment will give women a choice.”
The only problem: It was a lie, delivered via text message on Monday, the day before voters decided on an election amendment seen as the first test of voter sentiment following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Conservative state voters with deep ties to the anti-abortion movement ended up rejecting the measure.
“We certainly saw dirty tricks, but never this level of deception was intended to make people vote the opposite way they intended,” said Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a youth voter registration and engagement organization in Kansas.
The misleading texts sent to Kansas Democrats highlight the growing problem of political disinformation sent via automated text messaging, a ubiquitous communication system that presents new opportunities for those trying to deceive voters.
To be sure, voting initiatives are often confusing – sometimes by design, so voters 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 wider adoption of text messaging by political campaigns and organizations, a trend that accelerated as the pandemic forced campaigns to find new ways to engage with voters.
People in the United States received nearly 6 billion political texts in 2021, according to an analysis of RoboKiller, a mobile app that allows users to block text and voice spam. This comes after a steady increase throughout the 2020 election, which saw political spam texts increase by 20% per month.
“There has been an explosion of political texting since 2020, and since then, political messages have stuck,” said RoboKiller vice president Giulia Porter.
Two days after the 2020 election, thousands of anonymous texts were sent to supporters of then-President Donald Trump, claiming that election officials in Philadelphia were manipulating the vote. The text asked recipients to show up where the ballots were being counted to “show their support” for Trump.
The anonymous texts were later linked to a texting company run by a top Trump campaign official.
In the same year, someone used text messages to spread false rumors of a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Federal officials later blamed a foreign government for trying to fuel fear and division.
Text messages can offer specific advantages over social media when it comes to spreading misinformation without leaving a trace, according to Darren Linvill, a professor at Clemson University who researches disinformation techniques.
People also view text messages differently than social media, Linvill said. Social media is designed to reach the widest audience possible, but text messages are sent to specific phone numbers. This suggests that the sender knows the recipient in some way and is specifically targeting that person.
“People are not so used to being suspicious of information in a text message,” Linvill said. “It’s more personal. Someone out there has your phone number and is contacting you with that information.”
While major social media companies have had varying success in containing disinformation on their platforms, text messages are not moderated. As they aim for maximum exposure, disinformation campaigns using social media are easier to detect, study and expose, whereas text messages are private, one-on-one communications.
Software that allows groups to send hundreds or thousands of texts using fake numbers makes it even more difficult to discover the sender’s identity.
Messages sent in Kansas used a messaging platform created by Twilio, a San Francisco-based communications company. Twilio did not identify the customer who sent the texts, but a spokesperson said the sender was suspended from his service for violating his rules on misinformation.
The election amendment 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” vote would have supported amending the constitution to remove the right to abortion. A “no” vote opposed amending the state constitution, upholding the right to abortion.
Lindsay Ford, associate director of a Kansas nonprofit voter engagement group called The Voter Network, noted that the texts come at a critical juncture when someone seeking to manipulate voters may have the best chance of success.
“That’s when voters who aren’t super-engaged start paying attention, in the last few days before the election,” said Ford. the first or only text they received, I can see how it can lead people astray.”