This story was first published by Mehr Sher, Carolina Public Press
February 14, 2024

With the primary election in North Carolina less than a month away, voters can expect political campaigns to ramp up efforts to get votes through political text messages and robocalls.

But some of these messages may not be from legitimate sources, with scammers getting involved in recent elections.

During the New Hampshire primary in January, voters received robocalls from an AI-generated voice impersonating President Joe Biden and advising them not to vote in the primary.

On Feb. 8, the Federal Communications Commission made it illegal to make robocalls with AI-generated voices generated by artificial intelligence. This development comes after New Hampshire authorities’ launched an investigation into the robocalls there. 

Carolina Public Press interviewed three experts and a leader of a nonprofit policy organization to understand the dangers of political text message and robocall campaigns.

Some experts said voters should beware of such messages and calls, as they could be misleading and be used as a voter suppression tactic. Others urge voters to look to the North Carolina State Board of Elections and county boards of elections for accurate information about voting and elections. 

“We have seen this (use of texts and calls) in 2020 and there’s no reason to suspect that we won’t see this again,” said Shannon McGregor, an associate professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media who has conducted research on the role of technology, media and social media in political processes.

 “The real danger around that is, whether it’s the campaigns or the people that support them, they deploy these because they’re trying to block people’s access to the ballot since that’s the only way they can win is if they block or limit access for certain types of people and I think that’s really dangerous for democracy,” she said.

“But I also think most people don’t pay a lot of attention to robocalls or robotexts they receive.” 

Dubious calls, texts targeted NC voters before

In 2020, on the last day of the election, North Carolinians received 972,000 political calls, more political robocalls than any other state on that day, according to an analysis by Transaction Network Services, a company that helps mobile phone companies and customers identify and block spam calls. 

Most calls in the 2020 election season seemed to come from political campaigns or pollsters according to the TNS analysis. But some robocalls told voters to “stay safe and stay home,” in an effort to perhaps intimidate voters, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

Confusing text messages also went to N.C. voters during early voting in 2022 from a company, Movement Labs, which sent messages about early voting locations that made it seem like the address was for their Election Day polling location.

The State Board of Elections said it received queries and complaints about the messages. The company later apologized and said it “didn’t specify” in its messages that they “were trying to encourage voters to vote early,” according to a statement from the company’s founder Yoni Landau.

In December 2023, people across the U.S. received 253 million political robotexts and 1.1 million political robocalls, according to Robokiller, a text and spam call blocking application. 

Experts warn voters to be wary of texts, calls

Most experts whom CPP interviewed said voters should be careful of political text messages and calls, while others say most people are less likely to respond to such texts or calls. 

“It’s really important that people find trusted sources of information and my biggest worry with text is it would be very easy to do a big misinformation campaign just on pure election administration stuff,” said Martha Kropf, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Always be cautious.”

Kropf has personally received lots of text messages related to political campaigns recently, including some fundraising texts, she said. AI-produced messaging has become prevalent and the information circulated may not be accurate, Kropf said. 

“It’s a smart strategy for a candidate, but for a voter you’ve got to be careful of misinformation, unless you know you got the information from a trusted source,” she said. 

Elderly North Carolinians seem to be the target of fundraising efforts, according to Kropf, and it wouldn’t be surprising if many older voters were more likely to be targeted by political campaigns. 

Blair Reeves, the executive director and co-founder of Carolina Forward, a North Carolina-based nonprofit policy organization, said he’s glad the FCC is cracking down on AI-generated robocalls because in the previous election a lot of bad actors were spreading misinformation to voters. 

But Reeves said the larger issue isn’t the messages or calls themselves, but the messages they are delivering.

“The larger issue is the proliferation of misinformation,” Reeves said. “We’ll probably see a lot more of that coming from AI, whether it’s text, call or video deepfakes.”

Media consumers need to be more discerning about their sources of information and the information that is seeking them out, according to him. 

“People who are more media or politically savvy may be less susceptible and those who are either heavily right or left or more partisan may be more willing to latch onto information that feeds their biases,” Reeves said. 

Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, said the use of text messaging for political campaigning has increased, largely because reaching people that way is cheaper. 

“Even if candidates only get one thing positive out of it, one out of every 100 texts, it costs less than a penny to send each one,” he said.

Digital natives, or those people who grew up with cellphone technology, are less susceptible than older voters to political messaging and calls, he said, but that doesn’t mean that young people aren’t at all.

“I got one from Nikki Haley,” he said. “I get them like everybody that says, you know, that such a candidate is disappointed in you? And you think, oh, I don’t want someone to be disappointed in me and then they say it’s because you haven’t given money.”

Cooper said voters should ignore political texts. 

“A lot of things could be affected, (such as) fraudulent voting behavior and there’s a lot of misinformation,” Cooper said. “People are better off not responding.”

Limiting political messages

Misdirections around the electoral process, around the dates of voting or the processes of voting and how it tends to limit people’s access to the ballot is most concerning, according to McGregor. 

The people who would be most susceptible to such messages may be first-time voters or those who maybe aren’t frequent voters or from out of state and not aware of the voting process in the state, according to her.

Voters should be looking out for whether the information they receive “seems new or different” or “something they haven’t heard before,” McGregor said. 

“Try to find a second source for the information that you receive about deadlines for things or how the electoral process operates,” she said.  

The FCC has specific guidelines for political campaign calls and texts.

North Carolinians can also report robocalls or robotexts to the N.C. Department of Justice either by filling out a form online or by calling the hot line at (844) 8-NOROBO.

The State Board of Elections urges voters to get accurate information about elections directly from state and county elections officials, said an emailed response from Pat Gannon, the spokesperson for the State Board. 

“If a text message claims you have not yet voted, but you have, you can see that your vote counted through the State Board’s Voter Search tool,” he said. 

Voters can also send a photo or screenshot of a text message or mailer that includes false or misleading information to [email protected], according to Gannon. 

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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