“CONFIDENTIAL: DON’T SHARE,” the Trump campaign texted me last month. “Pres. Trump requested your input on some key issues. We’ll send your answers to his desk in 1 HOUR.”
“Take Survey NOW,” the text continued, linking to a survey with questions like:
As of today, who will you vote for in 2020?
A Socialist Fraud
When I completed the survey, I was directed to a page asking me to donate between $42 and $2,800.
The Trump campaign sends multiple texts like these every day to me and millions of Americans whose numbers have ended up in the campaign’s database — often without the consent of the recipient.
Some of the texts are designed to make you feel special, like an extra-patriotic member of an exclusive club. They’ll dangle offers of signed MAGA hats or fancy dinners with the president, which no one appears to have ever won. “LAST DAY to accept your personal invitation to dinner with Pres. Trump in New York,” one campaign text advertised. “He’s waiting on your response, Jessica. Donate & WIN.”
For people who aren’t motivated by gimmicky contests, the campaign also utilizes shame: “Pres Trump noticed you ignored his text, Jessica. Your name’s still MISSING on the End of Month list. Donate in NEXT HOUR for a 6X-MATCH.”
Because of minimal government regulation around text messages, political campaigns are able to text thousands of people per hour, including people who didn’t sign up for the messages. People are far more likely to read their texts than they are to open campaign emails (which often end up in spam folders) or answer phone calls from unknown numbers. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 team pioneered campaign texting to recruit volunteers and promote events, and it’s quickly become a widespread practice for political campaigns.
But the president has turned his texting effort, which is central to his reelection plan, into a semi-legal grift of true Trumpian proportions. His campaign, which says it will send nearly a billion texts this year, has seized on limited regulation to spam potential voters and donors with a steady barrage of texts aimed at scaring, tricking or shaming people into forking over some cash.
The Trump campaign is testing the boundaries of what’s allowed — and by funneling money through obscure consulting companies, it has managed to avoid publicly disclosing how much it is paying for its texting operation and to which vendor, a possible violation of campaign finance law.
The texts are easy to mock — especially the ones featuring failson Donald Trump Jr. pleading for money on behalf of his father.
In reality, there does not appear to be any matching mechanism — the Trump campaign has never revealed who these supposed benefactors are, and even if they exist, their matching efforts would very quickly run up against the Federal Election Commission’s $2,800 limit for individuals contributing to a candidate committee per election.
But people who tweet obsessively about politics are not the target audience for these texts — and based on the sheer number of messages the campaign continues to send, the messages appear to be working.
“It’s a master class in how to persuade people to take action,” Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, said in an interview. “There’s a very clear call to action, there’s a sense of urgency.”
And at least some Democratic operatives are worried that the Trump texting operation is actually much savvier than it appears. “This may be an unpopular opinion, but they’re very good,” a person who has worked on peer-to-peer texting efforts for Democratic candidates said in an interview. “It’s so smart,” they said, referring to the texts promoting unwinnable perks. “People totally believe it.”
The only law that meaningfully restricts political text campaigns is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, which prohibits the use of an automated phone dialing system on people who have not consented to the calls and has since been applied to text messages. When political campaigns first started doing outreach via text, they sent blast messages from a five- or six-digit shortcode that required recipients to opt in.
During the 2016 Democratic primary race, the Sanders team took advantage of newly developed peer-to-peer messaging platforms that made it possible for campaigns to legally text thousands of people per hour without their consent by requiring an individual to manually press “send” on each message. It proved an extremely effective way to reach voters. Peer-to-peer text companies say the texts they send get read by at least 95% of recipients and are far more likely than email to convince people to complete the ask.
“It’s the last spam-free inbox,” Rory McShane, a Republican political consultant, said in a March interview.
The Trump campaign is using a combination of short-code texts (from 880-22) and peer-to-peer texts from various toll-free 10-digit numbers starting with 855. Most political campaigns use short-code blasts — which can be sent en masse from an autodialer to people who have opted in — for one-sided requests for donations. Peer-to-peer texts, which can be manually sent to anyone, are usually used to initiate back-and-forth conversations.
But the Trump campaign’s shortcode texts are indistinguishable from its peer-to-peer texts. Instead of using peer-to-peer technology to initiate a dialogue with voters, the campaign appears to be using it as a way to spam people who didn’t sign up for this.
The pioneers of peer-to-peer texting promoted the platform’s facilitation of personal back-and-forth conversations as the key benefit of the technology. “People, it turns out, respond positively to other people, in a way they don’t to automated mail-sending robots,” said Roddy Lindsay, a co-founder of Hustle, the peer-to-peer platform used by the Sanders campaign.
“But the actual value, the thing that Hustle inadvertently discovered, was that there was this TCPA loophole that let you text without an opt in,” said a person involved in the peer-to-peer regulatory process. Referring to Opn Sesame, one of the main peer-to-peer text companies that cater to conservative political groups, the person added, “they built their stuff more like, ‘This is cool, this is human — but let’s optimize for this loophole so we can text people without an opt in’ because there was a clear ROI to doing that.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Instead of using peer-to-peer technology to initiate a dialogue with voters, the Trump campaign appears to be using it as a way to spam people who didn’t sign up for this.
Until recently, there was almost no federal guidance on the legality of this loophole. Advocates of the platform argued that because each message required human intervention to send, it did not meet the definition of auto-dialing and could be used to text people without their consent. But without guidance from the Federal Communications Commission, cell phone companies were unsure whether they risked anti-spam fines by allowing the messages to go through.
After years of uncertainty, the FCC ruled in favor of the peer-to-peer text industry on June 25. “The fact that a calling platform or other equipment is used to make calls or send texts to a large volume of telephone numbers is not determinative of whether that equipment constitutes an autodialer under the TCPA,” the FCC ruled. “Instead, we make clear that if a calling platform is not capable of originating a call or sending a text without a person actively and affirmatively manually dialing each one, that platform is not an autodialer and calls or texts made using it are not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on calls and texts to wireless phones.”
Perhaps emboldened by the FCC ruling, the Trump campaign sent out a barrage of text messages during the July 4th weekend before the major cellphone companies started blocking the texts from going through. The battle between the president’s reelection campaign and telecom giants took five days to resolve, Politico reported.
The risk of losing access to voters via text — even for a few days — is particularly threatening during the pandemic, which has forced campaigns to pull back on in-person organizing and fundraising. “Especially in COVID time, the places where we campaign and reach voters are owned and operated by private companies,” Wilson said. “Text messages and phones, social media networks, the internet — it is within the power of private companies to restrict campaigns’ access to voters.”
For such a massive operation, there is a notable lack of transparency about who is actually running it. Gary Coby, the Trump campaign’s digital director, is also the CEO of Opn Sesame. The Republican National Committee, which has sent texts frantically warning that Biden wants to “Defund Police & Abolish America!” has paid Opn Sesame $4 million since January of last year for “list acquisition” and “voter registration services,” according to FEC filings.
Although the Trump campaign is likely using Opn Sesame’s services, it has not reported any payments to Coby’s company in FEC filings. Instead, the campaign has reported paying $6.8 million to an LLC called American Made Media Consultants for services described as “SMS.”
The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, documented the payments in an FEC complaint last month, accusing the Trump campaign of laundering nearly $170 million of campaign spending through companies that disburse payments to the campaign’s vendors — making it impossible for the public to know who the campaign is paying for services and how much it’s paying.
It’s unclear whether the Trump campaign’s texting strategy will shift from one-sided pleas for donations to two-sided conversations about voter turnout as Election Day gets closer. As with any technology platform, peer-to-peer texting is ripe for abuse. Some industry experts on the left fear that the Trump team could lean on texts to spread disinformation about the election and incite violence against political opponents, as the president has done on Facebook and Twitter.
In addition to using texting to persuade and turn out voters, “I would venture a bet that the messages they send out on that will be racist, nationalistic, fear-mongering,” said a longtime Democratic campaign operative who used to work at the peer-to-peer texting platform Hustle. “Like, ‘We need you to turn out and vote! The Democrats are trying to steal this election! Immigrants are bringing coronavirus into the US.’”
What’s even scarier, the former Hustle employee said, is the ability for Trump-aligned actors to send anonymous, untraceable mass texts. Anyone can purchase thousands of phone numbers from a company like Twilio and pay for them using different credit cards.
“The thing that worries me is the fact that they could buy a list of likely Latino voters in Arizona and Florida that have an affinity for progressive politics and send something out to them saying in Spanish, ‘ICE raids expected on Election Day. Avoid the polls.’”