If you've felt like you’re receiving more political robocalls and text messages in recent months, you’re right. You are. By the time the polls close on November 3rd for the United States Presidential Election, Americans will likely receive over 3 billion political text messages, and over 1 billion political robocalls from both Republican and Democratic parties.
Though limited data is available to show political message volume during the 2016 Presidential Election, during the 2020 election political messages have increased by 20% every month since June!
Some Americans view political messaging as a helpful way to follow or contribute to their political candidate of choice. However, not all Americans want to receive political messages. Due to the way political robocalls and text messages are regulated (yes, they are regulated differently than other robocalls or robotexts), unwanted political messages can be difficult to unsubscribe from—but not impossible. In this post, we’ll cover:
RoboKiller estimates that Americans nationwide received 70 million political robocalls and 2.7 billion political text messages related to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election in September 2020. These numbers account for a 50% monthly increase since August 2020.
Republican political message efforts have been the clear leader in political message activity since RoboKiller first began tracking these trends in June 2020. This is not surprising, as most politicians began leaning heavily into political texting during the 2016 Presidential Election. In September 2020, RoboKiller estimates political robocalls on behalf of Republicans accounted for 1.8 million of the 2.7 billion total political text messages, and 50 million of the 70 million total political robocalls. This accounts for approximately 70% of the total political messages for September!
Though far behind 2020 Republican political messaging, the Democratic party has been rallying to increase efforts to reach voters by political text. Political text messages sent on behalf of Democrats totaled 902 million in September 2020, accounting for a 200% increase since June 2020. Regardless of who is leading the political message race this month, one thing is clear: Americans nationwide can expect to continue to receive millions (if not billions!) of political text messages and robocalls until the polls close on November 3rd.
There are a few reasons it has been difficult for citizens and regulators to understand the scope and extent of political messaging in our country.
First, the technological infrastructure of the telecom industry was not designed to understand trends of this nature. Similar to the challenges carriers and networks face with identifying illegal robocalls, there are simply not systems in place to identify specific phone numbers, their sources, and the contents of the call or message.
Second, it's important to note that many of these political messages are not being sent by political candidates themselves. More often, Super PACs and other third-party campaign organizations are responsible for the large volume of political messages Americans receive.
Following the Citizens United ruling in 2015, Super PACs have played a larger role in campaign funding with far less scrutiny and forced disclosures than in the past. This is not only true for the donations they collect and distribute to politicians but also the political messages they send on behalf of them. Because there are no disclosures to track how many political messages a Super PAC can send, there has been no knowledge to date of how many they are sending—until now.
Much like marketers, politicians, PACs, or other organizations involved in generating support for a political party or political candidate are always looking for the best way to reach the most Americans at the lowest cost. As the adoption of smartphones increases in the United States, political messaging has become an affordable and engaging way to reach Americans where they spend most of their time—on their smartphones.
And it’s effective. In a 2018 study done by the Tech for Campaigns organization, “registered voters between the ages of 27 to 50 turned out at a rate almost 8% higher than those in that same age group that were not texted. Younger, registered voters (50 and younger), turned out at much higher rates when texted when compared to older (51+) groups.” Read more here.
Political messaging is also cheaper compared to other traditional campaigning methods such as TV ads. To send a political robocall or political text costs less than $1/message, according to Political Moneyball. There is another reason political campaigns love using political messaging, particularly peer-to-peer texting. Peer to peer texting offers a major loophole in the consent laws regulated by the FTC for sending mass robocalls and mass robotexts to a cell phone. We’ll cover that in more detail later in this post.
Shortcodes are a 5 or 6 digit phone number (as compared to the standard 10-digit phone number) that are used by political campaigns to send and receive text messages to solicit campaign donations at scale.
In 2012, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) approved the use of text messaging to raise funds for political campaigns. The FEC approved two types of political short code text message donation methods: texting to donate or opting in online.
The first method requires a person to send an SMS keyword registered to the political campaign. That process typically goes as follows:
The second method requires a person to enter their mobile phone number on a political campaign’s website instead of a credit card. That process typically goes as follows:
According to Politico, in both scenarios, the campaign donors’ phone number and identity are supposed to be hidden from the campaign because the payment is processed through the phone carrier for a small fee. At RoboKiller, we have yet to find evidence that is or is not the case.
Thankfully, the FEC approval of the use of shortcodes also came with heavy restrictions on how these codes could be used. There are over 18 major restrictions on the use of shortcodes for political texting, the most noteworthy being:
Political shortcode texting has been a popular method of soliciting political donations since the 2008 U.S. presidential election. At RoboKiller, we see the largest volume of political text messaging originating from shortcodes (as opposed to peer-to-peer) from the official political campaigns (as opposed to Super PACs or other third-party organizations). We believe this is the case for a few reasons:
Political peer-to-peer text messaging, or P2P, is the door-to-door campaigning of the digital era.
Though it has been around for years, P2P texting grew in popularity during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election as an easy and affordable method of reaching a large number of potential voters that politicians and PACs otherwise could not.
Political peer-to-peer text messaging is defined as when a volunteer or campaign staff manually sends personal text messages from an individual phone number to initiate a conversation with potential voters, as opposed to sending text messages from an autodialer.
To use peer-to-peer messaging at scale, political campaigns either use third-party platforms such as Opn Sesame or CallHub, or use campaign funds to build internal p2p technology that meets their campaigning needs. Read more here.
Political peer-to-peer text messaging typically works like this:
Then, the peer-to-peer text platform goes to work sending text messages individually to every phone number on the list. Because these text messages are technically sent from a real person, they do not break the consent laws for robotexting to a smartphone without prior consent.
In the United States, any robocall or robotext sent from an autodialer must first obtain prior consent from the recipient. For landline phones, prior consent is not required for robocalls sent from autodialers. Though political messages are regulated differently in some capacities, they are required to follow this rule.
The success of political peer-to-peer text messaging rides on one legal gray area: texting large amounts of people as a “real person” versus sending mass political texts from an autodialer. The basic argument in favor of peer to peer texting is that prior consent is not required if the political text messages are sent from an individual phone number versus an autodialer.
A 2018 article from Vice explains it best: “This text message golden age has operated largely in a legal grey area. Past text-message campaigning was mostly automated “broadcast” texting, which legally required explicit opt-ins with heavy fines for spam. The vast majority of this year’s political texting, however, doesn’t require voters to opt in to be pinged. ”For example, on July 24th, 2020, President Trump's re-election campaign accused Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile of "suppression of political speech" over the carriers' blocking of spam texts sent by their campaign. Source: Ars Technica
According to Business Insider, Trump "campaign operatives" contended that its texting "exists in a legal gray area that allows campaigns to blast cellphone users if the messages are sent manually," TCPA restrictions apply only to messages sent with an "automatic telephone dialing system."The problem with this legal gray area? In our opinion, it is driving total political messages (robocalls and texts) to increase in volume equivalent with specific categories of illegal robocalls such as the IRS or social security phone scams that RoboKiller monitors nationally. Without increased regulations on peer to peer messaging, we believe the total number of political messages (wanted or unwanted) will continue to grow in the United States even after the 2020 presidential election.
It's clear that restrictions on political text messaging have not caught up to the current technology being used to work around the laws designed to protect Americans from large amounts of political messages. Though a direct correlation has never been proven, it is also worth noting that some of the same politicians that are using political peer-to-peer texting to generate support or campaign donations are also the same politicians that may be in charge of regulating it. So, there may be mixed incentives for further regulations.
Because most political peer-to-peer text message campaigns encourage donations, this is a very lucrative channel for some politicians or Super PACS. Think about it this way: If a party and its affiliates send 500 Million political texts in a month, and generate only $0.01 in donations from each text they sent, they’ve collected $5M in donations. Reminder: that is per month.
The unfortunate truth about political messages is that there is a high likelihood that a portion of the political messages Americans receive may be unwanted. It is also likely that a portion of these messages are scams. At RoboKiller, we believe there are four areas of political messaging that are or may become problematic.
Political peer-to-peer text messaging benefits only the sender. By working around the gray areas of consent through manual, individual texting, campaigners are removing the ability to unsubscribe from political text messages. Why? Because in some cases, though you may have requested to stop receiving messages from Jonny B texting you from candidate X’s campaign, you are only requesting that the phone number Jonny is texting you from stops contacting you. You are never unsubscribing from the entire campaign and may receive more messages from another texter in the future.
Largely thanks to peer-to-peer messaging, political robocalls and political texts are reaching a concerning level of total monthly volume. At RoboKiller, we have observed political robocalls and political text messages reaching levels equivalent to illegal phone scam traffic we see in a given month.
Without updated restrictions on political peer-to-peer texting and organizations such as RoboKiller monitoring the volume and information being sent through political messaging, it is possible Americans will continue to receive large amounts of political messages in any future political election.
Until now, there has been little to no insight into the contexts of political messages sent to Americans, and therefore little consequence to anyone who may be using political messaging for dishonest purposes. Though RoboKiller remains unbiased in our call and text monitoring and blocking, there have been recent instances cited by the media this year where concerning information about mail-in or absentee voting has been spread via robocalls.
Like any major event in the United States, scammers are always watching and waiting in the background to capitalize on new phone scams. Phone scammers are studying and analyzing what political messages look and sound like so that they can create their own and steal from you!
Before we help you stop political messages on your smartphone, it may be helpful to explain how and why you receive them in the first place.
There are a few ways political campaign organizations may obtain your information and phone number.
At RoboKiller, we always suggest doing a Google search of your cell phone number to see where your phone number may be exposed. This not only can reduce political messages but also illegal spam calls you may receive.
Though we may sound like a broken record, the reason political messages are so much harder to stop than other robocalls are because:
To be clear, political messages can be stopped. It just requires time, action, and patience. RoboKiller recommends trying the following to help stop or reduce the number of unwanted political messages you may receive:
At RoboKiller, we believe that you shouldn’t have to receive any call or text you don’t want to. That includes messages from scammers, politicians, debt collectors, or even your family members. We have taken and continue to take active roles in legislation to ensure that protections for Americans from unwanted calls are moving forward, most recently with the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act.
RoboKiller is the only call blocker app that blocks spam calls and text messages using A.I. and machine learning. Unlike other call blocking solutions that only block calls based on user feedback and caller ID, RoboKiller’s predictive algorithm gets to the root of the problem—the caller or texter behind the message. Any time a spam call attempts to reach a RoboKiller customer, RoboKiller automatically intercepts the phone call before it ever rings.
RoboKiller uses Answer Bots to answer or analyze these intercepted spam calls and creates an audio fingerprint of the phone call. This is stored in our database of over 500M audio fingerprints, so RoboKiller can identify and shut down any similar robocall—regardless of the caller ID.
For text messages, RoboKiller uses machine-learning to identify dangerous text scams. First, RoboKiller analyzes the metadata of the call to look for common characteristics of spam texts. Then, RoboKiller automatically anonymizes and removes any identifiable information, such as a name or phone number, before determining whether to block it. Finally, the anonymized text message is blocked and stored in RoboKiller’s database to be monitored and used to flag any similar spam text messages.
Since RoboKiller’s launch in 2017, we have been collecting millions of known audio and text message fingerprints to ensure we stay one step ahead of scammers and robocallers. Though political messages are not the same as phone scams, this infrastructure is how RoboKiller is able to identify and monitor political message trends in the United States.
We won’t spend a lot of time on this. RoboKiller is the best solution to stop political messages because it can automatically block a wider range of known unwanted political messages seen across our user base of 900,000+ subscribers. So, rather than requesting to unsubscribe from every single political text message, RoboKiller does that for you automatically. Before your phone even rings.
RoboKiller comes with loads of other features for call blocking and spam protection. These features include: