2010 will mark the year that conservative operatives embraced text messaging as another tool for their voter suppression efforts. In at least ten states this election cycle, organizations supporting Republican campaigns used text message spam to bring mobile communications into the gutter and suppress votes. This was done by illegally uploading and broadcasting to mobile phone numbers over SMS and by emailing the phone numbers over SMTP. This new voter suppression tactic threatens to eclipse the positive impact that mobile tools have had in politics in recent years, unless we all work together to stop this now.
**Call 866-529-7620 & ask your State Attorney General to Investigate Text Message Spam**
If we don't make a stand on this illegal activity now, what is stopping them from using other forms of new media to suppress and disenfranchise voters? New developments in the social media like Foursquare's GPS-located "I Voted" badge and Facebook's GOTV wall notices lined all of our feeds and encouraged us to go out and vote. But how about folks who didn't have the same goal and spirit? What about folks who were looking to use these new tools to dissuade you from voting, spread false information or even worse?
In 2008, one of the fresh new vehicles for political organizing was mobile technology - using text messages to remind voters to vote and to even text-in questions or concerns about voting. Major campaigns and notable political firms worked within strict guidelines to make mobile technologies an asset to the democratic process. And it worked. Voters opted-in to receive breaking political news and campaign updates. They forwarded messages to their friends and became involved, all through their mobile devices.
It wasn't too long after the 2008 election that we saw right-wing groups experiment with buying mobile phone lists and spamming unassuming cell phone users in the special election for New York's open 20th Congressional District. They used the list to text people who had never "opted-in" to receive texts on behalf of the Republican candidate, Jim Tedisco. The messages (which often went to people who weren't in the Congressional District) and Mr. Tedisco's campaign failed. Tedisco lost.
A simple lesson should have been learned at that time - just because someone can sell you a list of mobile numbers doesn't mean that those people ever legally opted-in to your campaign's text message program or want to pay to receive text messages from you. Yet this year conservative operatives took it a step further. So far, this illegal use of text messaging has been reported in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The test of time has shown us how technology can be abused like this. The first people to receive an auto-call from President Bill Clinton asking folks to vote for their local member of Congress in the mid-90's were excited and told their neighbors to get out and vote! These first generation auto-calls engaged people and increased turnout. But auto-calls quickly went south when right-wing operatives used these calls to deliver false information about a candidate or a campaign without any accountability. After much public outcry and years of horrible abuse and smear campaign after smear campaign ... legislation was finally enacted to stop these dirty tactics.
Sadly, a great, inexpensive and effective form of communication for get-out-the-vote reminders turned into a stealth way to spread false rumors, harass people and message undecided voters to drive voter turnout down instead of up.
If there's a culminating point to see how auto-call technology evolved into illegal right-wing dirty tricks, it was when Republican Party operatives used auto-calls to jam Democratic State Party phone banks in New Hampshire during the 2002 election, leading to criminal prosecutions and a lawsuit. It was a wake-up call to all of us who care about using politics as a force for positive change.
This year's abuses are another wake-up call proving that we must keep a watchful eye on how new technologies can be used for both good and evil. We must be vigilant about stopping these unethical tactics before they further poison our democratic apparatus.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), all have very strict guidelines about this. People must explicitly opt-in to a campaign's mobile program before receiving a message. But this wasn't the case. The fact that some vendor can sell you a list of people that opted-in to receiving text messages from a "partner" organization does not pass anyone's guidelines. Here is the difference between buying a text message list and an email list ... It cost the user money and therefore they must subscribe to your program directly - it is opt-in by user first - not send them a message first and hope they don't opt-out!!!
Technology is moving fast, but we can be on guard. Help us take all the necessary legal actions to end these abuses. If extreme groups are violating the law - they must be punished. If they are taking advantage of loopholes that apply to old technology - those loopholes must be examined with consideration to the new technology and closed. Simply put, our governments, our AGs offices and our courts must move as quick as the technology is moving or risk suppressing the votes of many more.
Changes can happen if they are forced by a public outcry. A do-not-call registry was set to begin in 2003, but a court challenge delayed its implementation until 2004. And responding to numerous complaints, the Federal Trade Commission finally stepped in after years of consumer abuses too. They asked a federal court to shut down companies bombarding people with millions of deceptive auto-calls. In the meantime, states have been stepping up, but it has taken years. The Federal Elections Commission has been slow to adopt regulations for a lot of these new technologies but it is forcing disclaimers, authorizations and call back numbers.
Let's make an impact on text message spam by these third party groups before it gets out of hand. If you got one of these messages, please call 866-529-7620 now - it's a toll free hotline my firm set up to fight back against these abuses. We'll simply patch you through to your Attorney General's office so you can ask them to investigate these issues directly.
We can all use the technology of our time to fight back. I was amazed at watching good friends Ian Inaba, of the Guerilla News Network, and James Rucker, of ColorOfChange.org, organize video bloggers from all around the country to video tape voter suppression tactics in an effort called Video The Vote Back in 2004 and later in 2006. More than 1,300 citizen journalists got involved. They did this at a time when video-bloggers were becoming more and more popular, and the cost of video equipment was becoming cheaper and cheaper. They were able to put a camera on these ugly, under-the radar voter suppression tactics that happened at key targeted polling locations.
Please share your own stories through Twitter and Facebook or with a simple blog post, in addition to reporting incidents to the authorities. We are creating a record of these incidents to shine a bigger light on these under-the radar groups and make sure that the people responsible are held accountable!
Here is a list of the abuses we have discovered so far:
MIDTERM ELECTION TEXT MESSAGE ABUSES
--COLORADO: "Received a text on my WORK cell phone asking me to call my representative (Betsy Markey) and blame her for the economy." [Complaint Now Consumer Rules, 10-30-2010]
--DELAWARE: "It's an outrage ... It's ridiculous. I am a registered Democrat and I feel that my privacy has been violated." [Dialogue Delaware, 10-30-2010]
--FLORIDA: Grayson for Congress received several calls from people who received that text message and who had not opted-in to receive messages from Americans in Contact PAC (AICPAC). "firstname.lastname@example.org / Alert / Your Congressman Alan Grayson passed Obamacare and failed to create jobs. Tell him your thoughts 407-894-1448"
--ILLINOIS: Americans in Contact PAC (AICPAC) sends illegal unsolicited text messages to Illinois voters. [The Daily Background, 11-02-2010]
--MISSOURI: "I don't have a text plan for my cell phone. I very rarely text anyone. I have to pay for this @#$%&.... And I didn't sign up for it either." [Show Me Progress, 10-24-2010]
--NEW YORK: Niskayuna, N.Y. resident Clara Mehserle says she received a text message on her cell phone that said, "Jim Tedisco needs your vote! Polls open until 9 p.m. YOUR VOTE MATTERS. Paid for by Tedisco for Congress." One large problem was that Mehserle doesn't live in the 20th Congressional district. She's a registered Democrat. And she thinks she'll have to pay for the message because it came from a phone system outside her Verizon network.
--NORTH CAROLINA: Americans in Contact PAC (AICPAC) sent unsolicited text messages to voters in North Carolina's 11th and 8th Congressional District, according to sources in Buncombe County and the North Carolina Democratic Party. The text contains "negative messages" and gives a return number that goes to Democratic campaign offices. This may be a violation of campaign regulations in that the message does not offer text recipients accurate return contact information.
--PENNSYLVANIA: Americans in Contact PAC (AICPAC) was linked in the past to push polling and potentially illegal auto-calls. Now, they are sending unsolicited text messages to voters in the 6th District trying to scare voters away from Manan Trivedi, D-Pa.
--VIRGINIA: "Both myself and my husband received unwanted, unsolicited text messages from this group today supporting Rick Boucher's opponent."
--MINNESOTA: "You don't expect to get political calls on your cell phone," said Kline, whose cell phone plan doesn't include unlimited texting. "I really didn't think it was legal to send unsolicited text messages."
Call 866-529-7620 and ask your State Attorney General to investigate text message spam!