An anonymous text message circulated on the eve of the referendum on the issue, amid heated debate over abortion rights: “The yes vote will give women a choice.”
Clear as water. Except it was a lie, propagated just before a vote in Kansas, which was seen as the first opportunity to weigh in on the Supreme Court’s decision to disregard the constitutional right to abortion for Americans. Voters in this conservative state, with a strong anti-abortion movement, rejected the measure and protected that right.
“We’ve seen a lot of scams, but have never seen such a big one, designed to get people to vote as opposed to the way they vote,” said Davis Hammett, president of Loud Light, a Kansas organization that encourages youth. Is. To vote.
The fake text sent to the Kansas Democrats reflects the growing problem of political propaganda in the form of automated text messages, a communication system that offers new opportunities to those trying to mislead people.
It is true that the resolutions that are to be voted on are often confusing, sometimes on purpose, so that the individual can vote the opposite of how they were intended.
But text messages are emerging as an increasingly popular tool for spreading disinformation about voting and the electoral process. Although they were already used, they established themselves as an interesting alternative when the coronavirus pandemic forced campaigns to find new ways to communicate with people.
Nearly 6 billion political texts were transmitted in 2021, according to an analysis by Robokiller, a phone app that allows people to block unwanted text and voice messages.
“There’s been an explosion of political texting since 2020,” said Robokiller VP Giulia Porter.
Two days after voting in the 2020 presidential election, thousands of anonymous text messages sent to supporters of Donald Trump circulated saying that election officials in Philadelphia had rigged the results. People were encouraged to show up at counting centers to “show their support” for Trump.
The anonymous messages were later linked to a company run by one of Trump’s top campaign aides.
In the same year, someone used text messages to spread false rumors about the national COVID-19 lockdown. Government officials later attributed this message to governments in other countries bent on sowing discord and fear.
According to Clemson University professor Darren Linville, who studies misinformation techniques, text messages offer several advantages over social media because they allow false information to be spread without a trace.
For starters, Linville said, social media is meant to reach as many people as possible, whereas text messages are sent to individuals. Whoever sends them knows to whom they are sending them and points directly to that person.
“People generally don’t trust the information in a text message,” Linville said. “It’s something more personal. Someone has your phone number and is trying to get information from you.”
While the big social media companies have managed to combat misinformation on their platforms to some extent, text messages remain unfiltered. Disinformation campaigns are easier to detect via social networks, while text messages are private, person-to-person communication.
Software programs that allow hundreds or thousands of text messages to be sent using fake numbers make it very difficult to identify the sender.
The texts sent in Kansas used a messaging platform designed by San Francisco-based company Twilio. Twilio did not identify the client who sent those messages, but a spokesperson said it had suspended him for violating its rules regarding misinformation.
The Kansas vote asked people to weigh in on changes to the state’s constitution, which would have cleared the way for a Republican-controlled legislature to more severely regulate or suspend abortion rights.
A “yes” approved the amendment that would have restricted the right to abortion, a “no” rejected the amendment and protected that right.
Lindsey Ford, deputy director of a non-profit organization promoting citizen participation in the electoral process called The Voter Network, said the texts circulate at a critical time, when someone tries to tamper with a voter. more likely to be successful.
“This is the time when those least interested (in the process) start paying attention right before the vote,” Ford said. “If they’re waiting for something to help them make up their mind and they haven’t seen anything else anywhere else, and that was the first or only lesson, it could lead them in the wrong direction.”