“Boris, Florida is in trouble,” warned one text message seeking campaign donations — and promising 900 percent matching funds — for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
“You have midnight, Boris,” insisted another campaign text, urging voters to fill out a survey, which came with a photo of former Donald J. Trump pointing an outstretched forefinger like Uncle Sam.
“It’s Mike Pompeo,” said a third message, which appeared to be from the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. “I’m not asking for $, Boris. I’m asking you to endorse these GOP veterans running to save America.”
These messages promoting Republicans, addressed to “Boris,” were among a flood of more than 150 unsolicited texts sent during one month this fall to Lorraine Barba, a Democrat in Wilmette, Ill.
Ms. Barba, whose phone number had been briefly commandeered by a man named Boris, found the unwanted messages on her iPhone intrusive. She repeatedly tried to opt out of by typing “STOP” — to no avail.
“My phone was constantly pinging,” Ms. Barba said, adding that she was troubled “by the relativelessness of it.”
She is hardly alone. In October, people in the United States received an estimated 1.29 billion political text messages — about twice as many as in April — according to RoboKiller, an app that blocks Robocalls and spam texts. Many voters have complaints about it.
In response to recent questions from The New York Times, more than 940 readers across the political spectrum shared their experiences, describing a hail of inflammatory messages from both parties. To illustrate their concerns, readers also submitted more than 1,000 images of the political texts on their phones. Many were rife with divisive language or deceptive content.
The campaign messages not only capture some voters’ deep frustrations with unwanted political texts. They also document how political texting is becoming a go-to method for spreading doomsday scenarios, lies and campaign smears.
In other words, texting is a handy method for political actors to quietly propagate the same kind of divisiveness and disinformation that already abounds on social media — only away from the public scrutiny of academic researchers, fact-checking groups and investigations.
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“I’m disturbed by the divisive language, the lies about election fraud and the fact that, after requesting to unsubscribe, I was even sent the exact same text immediately after,” wrote Ailin Cao, a software engineer in Washington, DC
In some cases, the campaign texts did not clearly disclose their sponsors. Others solicited donations for, and contained links to, unknown entities — making it difficult to distinguish real campaign messages from spam and fund-raising scams.
Consumers filed 9,477 fraud reports related to political text messages with the Federal Trade Commission in fiscal year 2022. Separately, the Federal Communications Commission received about 2,100 complaints related to political texts over the last year.
Yet there is little federal oversight or scrutiny of political texting, partly because regulation has not kept pace with advances in technology. As a result, Americans seeking to halt political texts have little recourse other than blocking individual campaign numbers on their phones or reporting them to their wireless carriers.
Federal Election Commission rules require political ads on broadcast TV, cable and radio to disclose their sponsors, for instance, do not apply to political text messages.
Other rules, enforced by the FCC, require campaigns that use auto-dialers — robocalling technology that can automatically call random or sequential phone numbers — to obtain consent before calling or texting consumers. But those rules are based on a 30-year-old law: the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. They do not apply to political campaign sends today that use apps to text messages to hundreds of thousands of people.
In fact, the torrent of texts only increased this year after the Supreme Court sided with Facebook in a lawsuit in 2021 over unsolicited mobile messages. In that case, Facebook v. Duguid, the court ruled that Facebook’s texting method did not meet a narrow definition of auto-dialing — a decision that has emboldened some campaigns to freely bombard voters with unsolicited texts.
“The Supreme Court decision has created a loophole that I think lots of actors, good and bad, are using and exploiting,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the FCC, said in an interview. “That’s why you’re seeing this incredible increase in the number of these texts.”
Even politically engaged who generally welcome campaign texts said they would like to see reforms.
Joan Condon, a frequent donor to Democratic campaigns who lives in Orleans, Mass., said she liked receiving texts that kept her updated on issues like climate change and gun control. But she objected to the apocalyptic tone and artificial urgency — “DEADLINE TONIGHT!” said one fund-raising message she received — of many political texts.
“I don’t like scare tactics,” Ms. Condon said. “You know, please don’t insult my intelligence.” She also took issue with “survey” text messages that solicit voters’ opinions only to later ask them for donation campaigns. “It’s like a bait and switch,” she said.
Unlike email, many people still view texting as a sacrosanct channel for communicating with friends, family or co-workers. That is why some Americans regard unsolicited political texts as privacy invasions.
“I am registered as a Republican but never signed up for any of these campaign communications,” wrote Brian Wiley, an adjunct psychology professor in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Mr. Wiley, who has received texts promoting Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, said he had lodged a complaint with the FCC “There is no longer any protection for phone numbers,” he added.
Mobile providers, including Verizon and AT&T, along with dozens of services that facilitate texting campaigns, recently signed on to an effort to standardize industry practices.
Participating campaigns register the 10-digit numbers they use for texting with a hub called the Campaign Registry. They also agree to follow industry best practices, including obtaining consent before sending text messages and honoring opt-out requests.
“To avoid sending unwanted messages, political message senders should honor consumer preferences,” CTIA, a group representing the wireless industry, wrote in a recent blog post. The blog also said campaigns should be mindful that consumers “donating to a certain candidate does not mean that they consent to get text messages from that candidate.”
It doesn’t always work out that way.
In 2020, a retiree in the Phoenix area, donated to the first Senate campaign for Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat. Senator Warnock won in a special election in 2021. (The retiree asked that her name not be used for privacy reasons.) This year, she said, Senator Warnock’s re-election began sending unsolicited text messages that she did not want, which she received via her Google Voice number.
But after she typed STOP to opt out, she received another text from the Warnock campaign, this time from a different phone number. In all, after repeatedly opting out, she received Warnock texts from at least 30 different numbers.
In a statement, the Warnock campaign said it honored opt-out requests, using a “highly effective texting tool” to automatically remove numbers from which it had received “STOP” requests. But if an opt-out request comes in from a phone number that is not on the campaign’s texting list — such as a Google Voice number — then the campaign said it had “no way of knowing they’ve made the opt out request.”
Readers also flagged political texts spreading misinformation or disinformation. One text falsely claimed that President Biden was about to send 87,000 IRS agents to “shut down and destroy churches across America.”
Jessalyn Aaland, an artist in Emeryville, Calif., received a number of messages from Republicans containing false or exaggerated assertions, including one urgent-seeming text that said Democrats had organized a petition to impeach justice Amy Coney Barrett of the Supreme Court, and had gathered more than 50,000 names for it. “We need 305 GOP signers to drown them out,” the message said.
The messages “are frustrating because they are ridiculous and full of lies and falsehoods,” Ms. Aland wrote. She added: “These campaigns prey on people, on all sides of the political spectrum, and I’m seeing that in the messages I’m getting.”
In September, the FCC proposed new rules to crack down on scam and spam text messages. They would require mobile service providers to block texts that are likely to be illegal.
Ms. Rosenworcel, the agency’s chairwoman, said such an approach would enable the FCC to help stem texting fraud — without involving the agency in complicated issues of political content and free speech.
But imposing meaningful transparency and consumer protections for political text messages would most likely require an act of Congress, a body populated by legislators who rely on mass texting to solicit campaign donations.
Jon Leibowitz, a privacy lawyer in Washington, DC, said he was also concerned that candidates, political committees and like-minded advocacy groups were now freely able to obtain and swap voters’ mobile numbers — a phenomenon he described as “bipartisan privacy intrusions. ” As examples, he sent a reporter copies of unwanted text messages that he had received from both parties.
“It’s outrageous that politicians are allowed to do this,” said Mr. Leibowitz, a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. “Someone should make sure there’s a law that can stop this.”