Disinformation via text message is a problem with few answers

While there’s now a cottage industry and federal agencies that target election disinformation when it’s on social media, there’s no comparable effort for texts.

Text messaging has become a big part of political mesasging, but misinformation has also crept in.Shira Inbar for NBC News

The biggest election disinformation event of the 2022 midterm primaries was not an elaborate Russian troll scheme that played out on Twitter or Facebook. It was some text messages.

The night before Kansans were set to vote on a historic statewide referendum last month, voters saw a lie about how to vote pop up on their phone. A blast of old-fashioned text messages falsely told them that a “yes” vote protected abortion access in their state, when the opposite was true — a yes vote would cut abortion protections from the state’s constitution.

The messaging effort and referendum both failed. But the campaign shows how easily a bad actor can leverage text messages — which still rely on the same basic technology from when they were developed in the 1990s — to spread disinformation with few consequences. And while there’s now a cottage industry and federal agencies that target election disinformation when it’s on social media, there’s no comparable effort for texts.

Scott Goodstein, who built the bulk text messaging apparatus for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and has since advocated for stronger reforms to rein in potential abuse of political text spam, said there’s little stopping other political groups from spamming voters with disinformation.

“This is very easy, and there’s no real cost or consequences for a bad actor to upload very, very targeted voter-file-based groups and spread misinformation, disinformation, horrible rumors,” Goodstein said.

Kansas “was just foreshadowing the future,” he added. 

In many ways, it’s harder to spread overt election disinformation on American social media platforms than ever before. Since the 2016 election, when Russia’s “troll factory” ran unchecked, Facebook and Twitter started taking the issue more seriously, hiring teams that routinely remove that kind of content, taking down coordinated accounts pushing misinformation and preemptively informing users about basic civic matters like how and where to vote. They’re aided by the FBI, which in 2017 spun up a dedicated unit, the Foreign Influence Task Force, that tips them to foreign online propaganda.

But there is no company or regulatory agency that monitors the contents of all of the billions of text messages that are sent every day. American phone carriers employ some anti-spam measures, but they’re clearly limited: More Americans are filing complaints about spam and scam text messages with the Federal Trade Commission this year than ever before, an agency spokesperson told NBC News, and 2022 is likely to be the first year where they outpace complaints about phone calls.

Of the three major U.S. phone carriers, T-Mobile didn’t respond to a request for comment, and AT&T and Verizon referred 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.”

Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who studies disinformation, said while there’s been substantial data-based research of disinformation on social media from academia and third-party social analytics companies, there’s never been any way to comparably study text messages.

“What are you going to do with text messages? There’s no tool to collect it all, and nor should there be, necessarily,” Linvill said.

“This is an underappreciated tactic, and I feel like it’s becoming more popular than in the past,” he said. “It’s really hard to measure.”

Federal restrictions on political text messages were loosened right before the 2020 election. One of the last major acts of the FCC during the Trump administration was to make it easier for political campaigns to send text messages, even to numbers on the do not call list, provided each message was sent by a person and not an automated system.

But campaigns developed a simple workaround that makes sending those messages almost as fast as if they were automated, said Kevin Bingle, the founder of Right Digital, a conservative digital political outreach company in Ohio.

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

“I can schedule a send to the 10,000 voters, and it takes a few hours for them to get through it, but there’s literally an office park full of people just sitting there hitting a button to manually send the messages one at a time,” Bingle said.

Bingle 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? That’s something I’ve wondered a lot,” he said. “Surely they have customers complaining constantly about these unsolicited text messages they’re receiving. I would imagine the profits are too hard for them to pass on.”

It’s not clear whether political groups that spread text message disinformation will face any consequences. In the Kansas case, messages were delivered through Twilio, a San Francisco company that dominates the American bulk text-messaging market. A Washington Post investigation found that they came through an anti-abortion activist, Tim Huelskamp, who had used a Nevada digital campaign company, Alliance Forge, to send them. Neither Huelskamp nor Alliance Forge responded to requests for comment from NBC News, but Huelskamp told the Kansas Reflector that there was “no evidence” he was behind the texts.

A spokesperson for the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, the agency that oversees political campaigns in the state, declined to confirm or deny if anyone was under investigation for the texts, but said that state laws don’t require political groups to sign text messages if they weren’t supporting a candidate and that there’s no state law requiring such messages be accurate.

A Twilio spokesperson declined to comment on the record about the threat of its customers spreading political disinformation. But while Twilio had disabled the numbers used to spam Kansas after receiving complaints, the company, like the major phone carriers, doesn’t make a habit of pre-screening texts before they’re sent out. According to its policy, it depends on its customers to follow all relevant rules and regulations.

To date, there’s no evidence of a foreign country masterminding a large text message campaign against Americans, but Ukraine has accused Russia of repeatedly sending batch text messages to its citizens since the start of the invasion to spread panic and urge them to defect.

A declassified report on the 2020 election from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that countries like Russia and Iran spent little time trying to attack American election infrastructure and instead devoted resources toward influence operations. Two weeks before the 2020 election, the FBI accused Iran of masterminding a scheme that sent Florida voters intimidating emails telling them to switch their party registration. Iran denied the claims.

“It’s entirely reasonable to expect adversaries and those who want to undermine democracy to experiment with new tactics to divide us,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC News in a statement. “We saw some efforts to send misleading information or outright misinformation by text in the U.S. during the 2020 election, and I would expect that problem to get worse in the future.”

Goodstein, the former Obama campaign staffer, said he expects misinformation campaigns to target minority and low-income voters, who historically face much higher rates of voter suppression.

“These are going to be marginal voters being marginalized, on purpose,” he said. “This is age-old.”