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Disinformation Via Text Message is a Problem With Few Answers

By Kevin Collier for NBC News

The biggest election disinformation event of the 2022 midterm primaries was not an elaborate Russian troll scheme that played out on Twitter or Facebook. It was some text messages.

The night before Kansans were set to vote on a historic statewide referendum last month, voters saw a lie about how to vote pop up on their phone. A blast of old-fashioned text messages falsely told them that a “yes” vote protected abortion access in their state, when the opposite was true — a yes vote would cut abortion protections from the state’s constitution.

The messaging effort and referendum both failed. But the campaign shows how easily a bad actor can leverage text messages — which still rely on the same basic technology from when they were developed in the 1990s — to spread disinformation with few consequences. And while there’s now a cottage industry and federal agencies that target election disinformation when it’s on social media, there’s no comparable effort for texts.

Scott Goodstein, who built the bulk text messaging apparatus for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and has since advocated for stronger reforms to rein in potential abuse of political text spam, said there’s little stopping other political groups from spamming voters with disinformation.

“This is very easy, and there’s no real cost or consequences for a bad actor to upload very, very targeted voter-file-based groups and spread misinformation, disinformation, horrible rumors,” Goodstein said.

Kansas “was just foreshadowing the future,” he added. 

In many ways, it’s harder to spread overt election disinformation on American social media platforms than ever before. Since the 2016 election, when Russia’s “troll factory” ran unchecked, Facebook and Twitter started taking the issue more seriously, hiring teams that routinely remove that kind of content, taking down coordinated accounts pushing misinformation and preemptively informing users about basic civic matters like how and where to vote. They’re aided by the FBI, which in 2017 spun up a dedicated unit, the Foreign Influence Task Force, that tips them to foreign online propaganda.

But there is no company or regulatory agency that monitors the contents of all of the billions of text messages that are sent every day. American phone carriers employ some anti-spam measures, but they’re clearly limited: More Americans are filing complaints about spam and scam text messages with the Federal Trade Commission this year than ever before, an agency spokesperson told NBC News, and 2022 is likely to be the first year where they outpace complaints about phone calls.  For more, click here.

Photo by Roman Pohorecki:

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