Robocalls and Mobile Texting: Automated campaign outreach


Originally published in Inside the Influence Industry's Personal Data: Political Persuasion - How it works by Tactical Tech's Data & Politics team.

"It felt like a real invasion... My first reaction was, who is this? How do they know my name? How did they get my cellphone number?" - Comment from a robocall recipient as repeated in The New York Times

What are robocalls and mobile texting?1

The longstanding campaigning method of phone banking has evolved: advances in technology has allowed this established technique to be used at a far wider scope and scale than ever before. The growing accessibility of voter data now provides robocalling and mobile texting2 services with more ways to engage and analyse voters. These tools can also be used to gather additional data from voters, such as their likelihood to attend a campaign event or their stance on a particular issue or candidate.

Robocalling: A robocalling service automatically dials a list of phone numbers in order to deliver a prerecorded message or, in more technically advanced scenarios, even conduct a live call. Additionally, these advanced functions enable increased voter segmentation by conducting surveys and polls. Along with volunteer phone banking, robocalls are an essential tool for campaigns seeking to promote a candidate or party.

Texting: Like robocalling, mobile texting is used to directly broadcast a political message or a call-to-action to voters' mobile phones or devices. Campaigns can also use messaging platforms such as WhatsApp or peer-to-peer SMS (as opposed to bulk texting) to initiate conversations between campaign volunteers and voters, as well as to administer surveys and polls.

How is your data used?

Calling and texting both aim to reach you as directly as possible by using one of your most binding piece of personal data: your phone number. To build direct relationships quickly and cost-effectively, political campaigns can feed their in-house voter files or purchased data to a data-driven service provider, who helps them automatically dial phone numbers and deliver messages. Many of these companies also sell curated datasets of voter phone numbers. Campaigns in many countries rely on these services (as well as phone numbers contributed by party members) in their outreach campaigns, especially those using large-scale messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.

Data-driven services are becoming the technological backbone of the modern campaign phone bank. As such, they are often integrated into the offerings of robocalling providers. For example, the company RoboCent advertises 'reliable voter data at just 3¢/record', including data points such as full names, full addresses, political affiliation (deduced from party membership or other indicators), age, gender, voting jurisdiction, email addresses, landline and mobile phone number, and demographic information such as ethnicity, language spoken and education.

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A screenshot of a voter data request from RoboCent’s website featuring filters for location, demographics and phone numbers.
Source:‘Request Data’, RoboCent, Inc. (blog), accessed 20 February 2019.

Texting services are similar in that they also obtain and utilise mobile phone numbers from existing voter lists or self-sourced voter files. Services such as uCampaign, RumbleUp and Relay advertise being able to use their customers' lists of contacts in a texting campaign and even contact 'individuals that have been modeled to be likely donors/supporters of your cause'. These services can also source and provide phone numbers to political parties. Relay, for instance, allows for data to be imported from third-party vendors of voter files and voter databases, such as NGP VAN and Political Data Inc.

Robocalling and texting services establish a two-way conversation that helps candidates gather more information from the people they're reaching out to. Both approaches seek to collect voter data and segment and quantify voters for the benefit of the campaign. The purpose of these techniques is to engage the voter in conversation and learn more about their views through pre-set questions, which can be posed by a human, by a machine, or by a combination of the two. Robocalls can implement polls and surveys by asking call recipients to use their keypad or voice to answer questions. This data can be quickly processed to enhance the data assets of campaigns and voter data platforms like NGP VAN.

In the field of texting, Upland Software's Mobile Messaging product, for example, has a 'Tell-a-Friend' feature, which was used in at least one political campaign, where 'students could text in their friends' phone numbers to invite them to join the mobile list'. Callhub.io's SMS Marketing Software advertises an 'expansive' SMS-based data collection solution where the software will 'automatically gather [voter] information through a sequence of interactive text messages and build detailed contact profiles for each supporter', as well as several other methods to automatically gather and analyse data for campaigning purposes.

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A description of techniques for acquiring voter data via texting services as advertised by CallHub.
Source:‘ ‘SMS Data Collection’, CallHub (blog), accessed 13 February 2019.

Some examples

In Canada: While the use of personal data in political robocalling and texting campaigns is a common practice, it seldom receives media attention until voter information is misused or the content of the calls sparks outrage. Voter data was misused in Canada's 2011 federal election, when residents in several electoral districts were subject to a voter suppression campaign driven by robocalls spreading misinformation about polling stations and polling locations on election day. The courts eventually ruled that 'the most likely source of the information used to make the misleading calls was the CIMS database maintained and controlled by the Conservative Party of Canada, accessed for that purpose by a person or persons currently unknown'. In 2014, a former Conservative Party staffer was found guilty of violating Canada's Elections Act for his involvement in the robocalling misinformation scandal. The staffer had made several thousand robocalls to voters in Guelph, Ontario with a disposable mobile phone.

In India: In an effort to bridge the digital divide in India, the state of Chhattisgarh launched a large-scale plan to connect its population in part by providing free low-end smartphones to students and women. In the run-up to the 2019 elections, it was reported that these government-issued phones were being targeted with calls from the political campaign of the state's Chief Minister and the The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The report suggests that this robocall targeting of voters, which included surveys and get-out-the-vote messaging, was originating from a call-centre which had previously been hired by the state government and was now being used for political activity on behalf of a single client.30 Additionally, data gathered by the robocalling campaign was analysed in order to 'steer party activists to visit voters' with political leanings toward the opposition Indian National Congress Party. In response, the Congress Party filed complaints with the country's election commission arguing that the BJP was utilising government data on voters for the benefit of their own campaign.

In Malaysia: Reports on the prolific use of voter data in the run-up to the 2018 elections in Malaysia included references to political robocalling. A report for Tactical Tech details several instances of voters being contacted via phone by the 'National Census Department'.31 However, there is no such department in Malaysia. Nevertheless, the caller was able to identify the voter by name and regional language and asked surveying questions regarding the current government and attitudes towards the opposition. In another case, an interviewee stated that she had been contacted by one of Malaysia's leading call centres by an unknown caller asking for her voting preferences, polling station and reasons for voting. It remains unclear which political party or entity commissioned these robocall surveys, how the voter contact data was obtained or how the results of the calls would be processed.

In the UK: During the 2016 UK European Union membership referendum, the Leave.EU campaign's affiliate, Better for the Country Ltd, sent text messages to over 500,000 mobile phone numbers of UK voters. The Guardian has reported these mobile phone numbers were sourced from voters who had consented to receiving text messages regarding leisure, home improvements and insurance. In 2016, the UK's Information Commissioner's Office fined the Leave.EU campaign £50,000 for this mass texting campaign for not obtaining clear consent from those voters.

How do I know if it's being used on me?

It's usually not hard to tell if you are being targeted by a data-driven robocalling or texting campaign: voters will notice their inboxes and phones bombarded by political messages from candidates or causes.

Mass and direct voter contact through robocalling and texting is often regulated by local consumer protection laws to allow contact only when consent has been given. However, these regulations can vary in terms of what definitions are applied to these methods of voter outreach. Election campaign messaging, for example, is often less strictly regulated than sales initiatives.

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A screenshot of the robocalling services as advertised by NGP VAN, a data management system used by Democrats in the US.
Source: NGP VAN, ‘Campaign Phone Tools’, accessed 28 February 2019.

Despite these restrictions, US-based robocall and texting services have found ways to exploit loopholes in legislation. For example, automated, 'blast' text messages are not permissible without prior express consent: 'a human being must be present to "send" on every unsolicited text', according to the Federal Communications Commission. Peer-to-peer texting services circumvent these rules by relying on the fact that there is an actual campaigner engaged in a direct conversation with the targeted voter. Thus, it is not considered to be a 'robotext', even when it involves sending mass, canned responses to thousands of voters' mobile phones.

Similarly, RoboCent offers its version of 'ringless voicemail technology', which allows a prerecorded message to be delivered to voicemail without the device actually ringing, and advertises that the service 'opens the door to over 300 million mobile subscribers'. The Federal Communications Commission has yet to rule on the legality of the technology.

Considerations

↘ Robocalling and texting directly utilise a voter's personal data and engage intimately with the voter in order to deliver campaign materials and messages and conduct polls and surveys.

↘ Robocalling and texting could be considered a means of direct communication between politicians/parties and voters - a possibility that has only recently emerged on a mass scale. This relationship could even extend beyond campaign season in maintaining engagement with voters, such as the case of Malaysian politicians sending birthday or seasonal greetings to supporters.

↘ However, robocalls and texting in political campaigns can exacerbate the issue of increased segmentation and profiling of the electorate.

↘ There is increasing evidence that texting contributes to the proliferation of misinformation and fake news during the course of an election campaign, such as in the run-up to the 2019 election in Nigeria, or the SMS-based scam identified by Élections Québec in 2018 which fraudulently promised payment for political support.

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A screenshot from Élections Québec’s Twitter account warning voters against scam text messages being sent to voters.
Source: Québec, Élections. “Important! Un faux message texte circule présente-ment. Sachez qu’en aucun cas, Élections Québec ne demanderaitune rétribution ou n’offrirait une rémunération liée à l’exercice du droit de vote aux élections générales. En cas de doute 1 888 353-2846. #polqc #QC2018 RTSVPpic.twitter.com/krHf3718Mx.” Tweet. @electionsquebec (blog), September 30, 2018.

↘ Robocalls can also be used for nefarious purposes, such as the cases during the 2018 US Midterm elections where a white supremacist podcast initiated automated calls to voters in Florida and Georgia featuring racist and anti-Semitic messages targeting each state's African-American candidates.

1 The technologies examined here are purposely centered on American examples in order to showcase some of the more unrestricted uses of voter data. These practices may be subject to different data and privacy protection regulations in different countries. Different electoral contexts also change the emphasis of some technologies over others. For example, while SMS-based texting remains popular in the US due in large to historically low costs per SMS, messaging platforms such as WhatsApp are much more prominent in other countries.

2 Sometimes simply referred to as SMS in promotional materials, see ‘I Will Run Marketplace’, accessed 8 February 2019. In this piece, ‘texting’ refers to an overall category, containing sub-categories such as ‘bulk SMS/robotexting’, peer-to-peer texting via SMS or messaging platforms like WhatsApp.

Author: Gary Wright