Fake Beto O’Rourke Texts Expose New Playground for Trolls

A screenshot of the suspicious text message began making the rounds on social media Wednesday.

“Hi, it’s Patsy here w/Beto for Texas. Our records indicate that you’re a supporter,” the text message read, purportedly coming from a volunteer for Texas Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke’s campaign. “We are in search of volunteers to help transport undocumented immigrants to polling booths so that they will be able to vote. Would you be able to support this grassroots effort?”

The text did originate from a service called Relay, which O’Rourke’s volunteers use to contact potential voters. But the message itself—promoting overt voter fraud—wasn’t sanctioned by the campaign. “It was sent by an impostor,” O’Rourke’s communications director Chris Evans said in a statement. The opposing Ted Cruz campaign has said they had nothing to do with it either. Within a day, Relay shut down the account behind the phony solicitation.

The hoax was short-lived, and, Relay CEO Daniel Souweine assures WIRED, is “a total outlier,” among the millions of texts that have been sent through the platform this cycle. And yet, the entire ordeal reveals a new and largely undiscussed battleground in the information war being fought on just about every digital front.

Ironically, the text began circulating online just as top executives from both Facebook and Twitter appeared before Congress, laying out their plans to prevent trolls and propagandists from using their platforms to spread disinformation. They spoke of using artificial intelligence and legions of human moderators to root out bad behavior, while lawmakers promised regulation to keep the companies accountable.

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Meanwhile, a growing number of campaigns and political groups are relying on texting tools that have virtually no guardrails at all. They allow any campaign volunteer to access a list of phone numbers, and send whatever message they please. Because volunteers send each message individually, and have the freedom to edit what each one says, these so-called peer-to-peer texts circumvent the regulatory restrictions the Federal Communications Commission places on robotexts. During the 2016 election, both the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns demonstrated the effectiveness of the approach, leading to a spike in activity in the run up to the midterm elections this fall.

Despite their sudden growth, these young companies have failed to prepare for the type of manipulation that has plagued other, larger tech platforms. Instead, they leave it to the campaigns to thoroughly vet their volunteers, just as they would a phone-banker or in-person canvasser.

“The more barriers to entry you have, the less likely trolls are to jump through them,” says Souweine, who founded Relay after leading Sanders’ national texting program in 2016.

He found out about the phony O’Rourke text the way most people did: On Twitter. Relay quickly shut down the account, but Souweine declined to share details about the perpetrator, saying it’s up to the campaign to investigate who the person was and how much damage they did. According to Evans, “not a large amount of messages,” were sent, but the communications director declined to provide a specific number, and didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment about whether and how the campaign monitors volunteers’ texts.

All it takes to sign up as a texter for O’Rourke is filling out a form on his webpage. You then receive an email with instructions for setting up a Slack and Relay account, and a link to a site where you can sign up for a shift. The email comes with instructional YouTube videos, which explain how it all works. Volunteers log into Relay, where the campaign issues them a preloaded script and list of people to contact. It takes about 30 minutes to click send on each individual text, and volunteers are free to edit the message as they see fit. About 10 to 15 percent of voters reply, according to the video, and when they do, the campaign offers up a list of scripted responses about, for example, where voters can secure a yard sign. After the texts are sent, campaigns can check what’s gone out for any irregularities. But in the case of the O’Rourke text, the damage was already done.

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