Jennifer Stromer-Galley was not behind on any loan or credit card repayments, so her heart sank recently when she received a text message that appeared to come from debt collectors demanding money.
“MISSED PAYMENTS,” it read, before revealing it was actually a message soliciting donations from the campaign to re-elect Donald Trump as US president. “You haven’t paid your membership dues in 3 MONTHS. Only 48 DAYS until election. Pres. Trump and your party need you! Act NOW.”
The text was just one of billions of messages that Americans have received in the past few weeks as Democrats and Republicans turn to texts to energise voters who are harder to reach during the pandemic.
Texting is not a new technology, but a combination of the pandemic and a crackdown on political advertising by social media companies has made it more important in this election than ever before. Researchers warn that lax rules on what campaigns can send mean voters risk getting spammed and, even worse, misled about the origins of a message.
“Campaigns are definitely leaning more on text messages than ever before,” said Ms Stromer-Galley, who as a professor at Syracuse University collates such texts for research purposes. “I am getting eight to 12 text messages a day right now.”
She added: “Technically all these texts are legal, but they are walking a fine line.”
In the past 30 days, Americans have received a total of 2.1bn political text messages, according to RoboKiller, which sells technology to stop spam texts and calls.
Text messages can be a powerful tool: 90 per cent are opened in 15 minutes, and 98 per cent within two hours, according to the market research company Mobilesquared. Though campaigns must receive consent before sending out mass automated texts, they often consider a recipient to have agreed simply by entering their number into a candidate’s website or on an application form for an event.
Texts have been particularly important during this campaign in part because social media companies have made it more difficult to use their platforms to reach voters than in 2016. Twitter has banned political advertising altogether, while Facebook is banning new adverts for the week before and after election day.
The number of text political messages sent by Republicans in the past month
Nor are emails as successful as they used to be in targeting voters, according to Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “People’s email inboxes are absolutely flooded. That technology really peaked in 2016,” he added.
And the coronavirus pandemic has made it much harder to reach people in their homes, even for the Trump campaign, which is still holding in-person rallies and carrying out door-to-door canvassing.
In this election, it is the Republicans who are relying more heavily on text messages to reach voters. Robokiller’s research shows the party has sent 1.4bn political texts in the past month, compared with 615m from the Democrats. Ms Stromer-Galley says she receives roughly five messages from the Trump campaign for every one from his rival Joe Biden.
Part of the reason for that, researchers say, is that the Trump campaign is more in need of money, hence the messages seeking donations that at first appear to have come from debt collectors.
But strategists from both sides also say the Republicans are more willing to push boundaries, both with the content of their messages and with how they send them.
Texts from Mr Trump tend to be shorter and punchier than those from Mr Biden, mimicking the style of his tweets with a heavy reliance on capital letters and exclamation marks. They often solicit money in a more upfront way, promising to match any donations with ones of equivalent size, though never saying where those other funds are coming from.
Some strategists say the volume of Republican texts are the latest sign that the Trump campaign has mastered the medium better than Mr Biden’s team, in much the way it did with Facebook in 2016. “Democrats invent and Republicans perfect,” said Thomas Peters, chief executive of uCampaign, which made Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign app.
But the aggressive tactics could also land Mr Trump’s campaign in trouble.
Earlier this summer US telecoms companies blocked the president’s campaign from sending more than 1m messages, partly because they did not include clear instructions on how to opt out. The campaign is also facing at least two lawsuits from people who say they have received messages despite not giving their consent.
Campaigns do not send out the messages themselves, but usually subcontract the work to private companies who specialise in automated text message operations.
One Republican strategist said: “Some of these companies are engaged in a race to the finish line: they just want to send out as many texts as possible to hit pre-agreed targets, and don’t care whether they are ethical or even whether they are working.”
Neither the Trump campaign nor Opn Sesame, the company which runs its text message operation, responded to a request for comment.
As well as bombarding voters with automated texts, some campaigns have asked their supporters to text their contacts, in a practice known as peer-to-peer texting. Sometimes supporters will decide themselves on what to text, but more often they follow a strict script, which can vary depending on what type of person they are messaging.
Peer-to-peer texts circumvent the need to gain prior consent since people are sending personal messages, and practitioners say they are more successful in generating a response.
Michael Luciani, the chief executive of The Tuesday Company, which sells peer-to-peer texting software to Democratic candidates, said his company’s clients were using its app 10 times more than they had in previous campaigns.
But it remains far easier to reach voters in their millions through automated texts, and industry insiders say both presidential campaigns are relying heavily on them to reach as many people as possible in the final scramble to turn out voters.
The only risk, say some, is that this blizzard of messages ends up angering voters and rendering the medium less effective in future campaigns.
“There has been a huge expansion in political texting,” said Tim Lim, a Democratic digital adviser. “But already we are seeing the carriers clamp down on some of these tactics. The question is how long campaigns can carry on running operations like this.”
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