John Carroll, a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus checks for 2020 U.S. presidential election results on his phone before leaving the President Donald Trump 2020 watch party at Mugs ‘N Jugs is an American Sports Bar & Grill in Largo, Florida, U.S. November 4, 2020. REUTERS/Octavio Jones


The FBI is investigating why millions of people on Election Day received robocalls advising them to “stay safe and stay home,” a message interpreted by government officials as voter suppression. More than 800,000 of those calls targeted the residents of six swing states, stoking fears about malicious intent to scare voters away from the polls. Officials do not yet know the origin of the messaging campaign. 

“If you wanted to cause havoc in America for the elections, one way to do it is clearly robocalling,” Alex Quilici, chief executive for YouMail, told the Washington Post. “This whole thing is exposing [that] it can be very difficult to react quickly to a large calling volume campaign.”

The misleading robocalls capped off months of political texts sent to voters that prompted similar worries of disinformation. The personal nature of the messages and the difficulty of verifying the information in them worsens the potential for the spread of disinformation, academics warn. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that political campaigns are “systematically, but intimately, shifting their messaging to more private spaces than before,” sounding the alarm for the fact that the messages are “factually impossible to audit by outsiders.” 

Political campaigns relied heavily on text messages this election year to reach voters in the absence of canvassing neighborhoods during the pandemic. In addition, new research suggests that texts are better at catching peoples’ attention, and new messaging apps allow campaign volunteers to target close networks and send messages with ease.

Many voters complained about unwanted texts to their phone carriers. However, the Federal Communications Commission ruled in June that the peer-to-peer texting platform used by campaign volunteers is not the same as auto-dialing, meaning it is legal for campaigns to collect public voter registration records and send messages to those numbers. RoboKiller, a spam-blocking service, estimated that 3 billion Americans received political texts leading up to Election Day. 


The Rise of the Political Text Message – The Regulatory Review – 11/2/2020
In 2016, the Sanders campaign popularized this campaign strategy by sending thousands of personalized messages on a new technology platform called Hustle. Over the last four years, local and national political campaigns have followed suit, using additional platforms such as GetThru, RumbleUp, and Opnsesame to connect with millions of potential voters and volunteers.

How the 2020 Presidential Race Became the ‘Texting Election’ – Smithsonian Magazine – 11/2/2020
To do so, Croak and her co-inventor, Hossein Eslambolchi, an engineer and then an executive at AT&T, configured a new interface that allowed people to pick up their phones, text a keyword to a five-digit number and immediately donate a set amount—usually $10—to the cause. Then the phone provider would take care of the logistics, add the donation to the phone bill and transfer the funds to the charity or nonprofit.

Despite Fears of Violence, Election Day Proceeds Smoothly as Millions Line Up to Vote – The New York times – 11/3/2020
By early evening, most of the complaints around the country concerning intimidation centered on robocalls made to voters relaying false information. The Election Protection Hotline said it received reports of robocalls from 17 states discouraging voting.

Robocalls, Rumors And Emails: Last-Minute Election Disinformation Floods Voters – NPR – 10/24/2020
Dirty tricks and disinformation have been used to intimidate and mislead voters for as long as there have been elections. But they have been especially pervasive this year as millions of Americans cast ballots in a chaotic and contentious election.


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