In an election cycle that has virtually halted door-to-door canvassing thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, political campaigns are forced to seek out new ways to attach with potential voters. A new political secret weapon of choice emerges: Texting—or peer-to-peer text messaging.
Peer-to-peer text messaging allows campaign volunteers and staff members to have interact in meaningful one-on-one conversations with a high volume of voters during a short amount of your time.
by sending thousands of personalized messages on a replacement technology platform called Hustle, the Sanders campaign popularized this campaign strategy in 2016. Local and national political campaigns have followed suit, using additional platforms like GetThru, RumbleUp, and Opnsesame to attach with voluminous potential voters and volunteers over the last four years.
But because the popularity of peer-to-peer text messaging continued to rise after the 2016 election, so too did the fear of the platform leaders that their technologies weren’t compliant with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules.
The platforms are relying on outdated language within the Telephone Consumer Protection Act as they were treading in a regulatory gray area. But without these regulations, politicians might even be able to use platforms similar to sites like to send text messages globally to overseas voters.
The regulatory framework for campaign phone calls and general messaging rules is being provided by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Unless the decision was made for emergency purposes or with the prior consent of the called party, the law prohibits individuals from making calls using any “automatic telephone dialing system.”
The law defines an “automatic telephone dialing system” as any technology that has the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers that may be dialed employing a sequential or random number generator.
The repeated references to phone calls within the law reveal its age; it absolutely was passed in 1991, well before the proliferation of smartphone text-messaging capabilities. Defined rules for “texting” were thus unseen by the law.
The leading peer-to-peer text messaging platforms sought clarification from the FCC on whether the automated dialing call rules also applied to text-based communications in the absence of clearly defined rules.
A group of providers and users of peer-to-peer texting services called the “P2P Alliance” —filed a petition with the FCC seeking clarification on the standards applicable to texting, in May 2018. The petitioners argued that peer-to-peer text messaging should be exempt from the automated dialing rules because each text message is shipped by a true person to one recipient and therefore the platforms don’t facilitate the automated initiation of messages to an inventory of recipients.
The petition generated plenty of attention from various constituencies. A comment expressing its “strong support” of the petition and urging the FCC to “tread lightly when it involves regulating political speech” was filed by the Republican National Committee.
ALSO READ: The Effects of Technology on Politics
In contrast, a coalition of consumer groups submitted a letter to the FCC opposing the P2P Alliance petition. This coalition includes the National Consumer Law Center and also the Consumer Federation of America. “A significant setback within the Commission’s efforts will be marked to deal with unwanted and illegal robocalls and robotexts,” the coalition members argued about granting the petition.
The FCC ultimately gave the P2P Alliance the green light it desired after they broke its silence on the issue this past June.
The FCC declaratory ruling clarified that if a texting platform “is powerless of originating a call or sending a text without an individual actively and affirmatively manually dialing everyone, as the platform isn’t an autodialer.” Because the platforms depend on individuals to hit “send” on each message, this ruling affirmed that peer-to-peer text messaging is distinct from automatic dialing systems.
As peer-to-peer text messaging campaigns ramped up within the final days of the election cycle, this favorable ruling has given P2P Alliance platforms confidence that their actions are in compliance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. To affirm that “there is not any capacity within the platform to send auto-dial text, Hustle has even created an “FCC FAQ” page on its website.”
A consumer webpage that summarizes the key information from the June ruling was also created by the FCC.
Attention to peer-to-peer text messaging has been particularly high this campaign cycle, perhaps thanks to early research showing that peer-to-peer text messaging increases voter participation. Compared to email and spam, peer-to-peer text messages are more noticeable to would-be voters. Americans check their smartphones 52 times per day on average.
RumbleUp cites a 95 percent open rate of texts and a median interval of 90 seconds. Higher voter participation seems to correlate with higher open rates. One study found that, in 2018, registered voters aged 27 to 50 who received text messages encouraging them to vote clothed to vote at a rate almost 8 percent over voters therein same age range who didn’t receive texts.
Early estimates predict that, by the time the polls close tonight, Americans will have received 3 billion peer-to-peer text messages and robocalls over the course of the campaign cycle. Since June 2020, Republican-affiliated campaign groups have sent over sixfold the number of peer-to-peer text messages sent by their Democratic counterparts. Democrats have worked to shut this gap in recent days, sending almost 1 billion texts within the month of September.
Just what quantity will peer-to-peer text messages impact the overall election within the United States? Time will tell.