Text messages are the new door-knocking — but voters are paranoid about political outreach via text

In a socially distanced election, organizers say fear of being scammed is hampering text message–based outreach

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published September 24, 2020 7:02PM (EDT)



When news broke that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, political organizers and advocacy groups jumped on the sad news as a chance to try to stop Trump from appointing a right-wing nominee prior to the election, against Ginsburg's dying wish. One prominent message began to circulate on social media, advising readers to text "RBG" to the number 50409. The message said that, by sending this text, citizens would add their signatures to a petition asking their local senators to delay a new Supreme Court Justice nomination until after the 2021 election.

If you want the Senate to delay a new Supreme Court nomination until after the election, text RBG to 50409. It's a bot that will send a signed letter to your Senator. I was 414,446. It takes 2 minutes!

— Betty Buckley (@BettyBuckley) September 21, 2020

The problem? Many people didn't trust it. Scam Detector said it received inquiries questioning its legitimacy. 
And as the message gained traction, more people on Twitter took a second to clarify that this wasn't a "scam" and it was "actually legit."

Text "RGB" to 50409. It will send a letter on your behalf to your senators and sign a petition to not allow a new Justice until after the inauguration. It was a very easy process. If you are worried that this is a scam, it's actually legit.
After you text RBG, reply yes! #Resist pic.twitter.com/S6OduMLrAg

— klopas (@klopas18) September 21, 2020

They were right. It wasn't a scam. As verified by Snopes, texting "RBG" to 50409 is part of an automated service run by Resistbot, which is a product of a non-profit organization called the Resistbot Action Fund.

Jason Putorti, the executive director of Resistbot, shared data with Salon that as of September 24, 2020, a little over 1.5 million people signed letters that went to their senators across the country asking for the SCOTUS nomination to take place after the election. Putorti added that as the co-creator of the app, and a former volunteer for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, he believes texting is an important medium in organizing.

"Texting is a really powerful way to get in touch with people and there's an immediacy, people see it," Putorti said. "Email was pretty good a long time ago, but now so much is filtered out, or people don't open it, texting could go that way eventually. . . . but for right now, I think especially where there's no door knocking and there's no ability to do the normal types of campaign activities, the one-on-one texting is pretty critical."

Digital organizing, and outreach to voters via text, has become more popular over the past few years. During the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic campaigns and similar organizations sent texts to 350 million people through the apps Hustle and GetThru, which are left-leaning political texting companies, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But as Putorti said, in 2020, it's become even more vital, particularly given how the pandemic has limited traditional, face-to-face outreach. Yet as the Wall Street Journal reported, some people don't respond to political texts out of fear of getting scammed. A local news station in Orlando, Florida, even warned against them.

Do citizens have a lack of trust in this medium? A simple search on Twitter for "political text scam" shows hundreds of people venting about being annoyed by the outreach or decrying it as fraud. Currently, there's no official way to quantify the trust or distrust in this medium, but there are voters who expressed their skepticism to Salon.

"A lot of times I'm kind of suspicious of them just because I don't know how they're getting my number," Stephanie Trzaskowski, who lives in Arizona, told Salon. 

Trzaskowski said sometimes she receives text messages from Republicans who are trying to get her to vote a certain way, which doesn't align with how she's previously voted.

"I'm always kind of suspicious of that," Trzaskowski said.

Campaigns and organizers get people's phone numbers either from scraping data or from publicly available voter files. Democrats work with political text messaging platforms like GetThru or Hustle, which is what volunteers use to send the messages.

However, the aggregated lists compiled by campaigns aren't available for volunteers to see. In other words, they don't type your number into their phones directly. It's all done through the computer. Volunteer texters also get fake numbers, for the sake of privacy.

Being suspicious of this kind of outreach is perhaps understandable given that texts are a ripe medium for scammers. Indeed, in 2018, there was a text-based phishing scam reported in Michigan, in which victims received text messages stating that their absentee ballots were incomplete. They were then asked to fill out personal information to complete them.

According to Scam Detector, there are a handful of phishing scams in which scammers have disguised themselves as government officials. There are similar scams, too, on short-form text media like Twitter. In July 2020, hackers hijacked the Twitter accounts of former President Barack Obama, presidential hopeful Joe Biden, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Kim Kardashian and Apple, posting a similar fake message to encourage users to send them Bitcoin.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states directly on its website to be suspicious of messages that ask for one's personal information.

"The messages might ask you to give some personal information — like how much money you make, how much you owe, or your bank account, credit card, or Social Security number — to claim your gift or pursue the offer. Or they may tell you to click on a link to learn more about the issue," the FTC states. "Some links may take you to a spoofed website that looks real but isn't."

The FTC advises consumers not to click on links that arrive via text from an unknown source.

Still, text message outreach seems poised to become an even more common means of political outreach in the coming years. Samantha Sherman, who is the president of Women to the Front, said texting has been a crucial medium for organizing for various Democrat campaigns.

"I think it's absolutely key and crucial, it is also really great at recruitment and it's the most effective way to reach the most amount of people, and share information," Sherman said. "Especially in a pandemic."

Sherman said she usually sees a handful of people question the legitimacy of the outreach. Once, she had a person ask for a photo to prove she's a real human (which she didn't send); instead, she replied with a robot emoji, which established trust with the recipient whom she managed to recruit for phone banking.

"It's not the majority, it's definitely the minority" who are innately mistrustful, Sherman said.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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