A Firm Aimed At Fighting Disinformation In Political Texting Has Trump Ties, Serious Conflicts

With Election Day only 53 days away, campaigns are scrambling to contact every voter they can. Text messaging has become an indispensable tool in the desperate quest to reach people, bypassing email inboxes cluttered with promotions and spam, and breaking through amid the flashing ads of the internet and promoted posts on social media. Text messaging can be more personal, and it’s direct. 

But text messaging is also a minimally regulated space and, like any platform, there is the potential for malfeasance. Who is really on the other end of that random number that just reached out? Bad actors have already bought phone numbers with which to bombard people with spam or disinformation. In 2018, someone falsely claiming to be affiliated with then-Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke texted voters with a request for help transporting undocumented immigrants to polling booths so they could vote, a message seemingly designed to legitimize Republican fearmongering around voter fraud. Last month, someone pretending to be Republican congressional candidate Byron Donalds texted voters that Donalds was dropping out of the race on the day of the primary, an apparent effort to discourage people from voting for him. 

Wireless carriers do filter spam, but they are understandably reluctant to referee what is or is not a legitimate political communication. So this year, a group called Campaign Verify stepped into the breach. The nonprofit describes itself as a nonpartisan service that provides identity verification to federal campaigns, parties and PACs to protect them from being spoofed by bad actors or filtered as spam by wireless carriers.

Campaign Verify gives customer campaigns a secret PIN code via mail or email, and campaigns are supposed to use those codes to generate “secure authorization tokens” that texting platforms then use to show wireless carriers the messages are coming from legitimate political actors. Campaign Verify charges hundreds to thousands of dollars for its verification service. Late last month, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) started urging its candidates’ campaigns to sign up with the company as soon as possible or risk having their texts filtered as spam by the carriers. 

But HuffPost spoke with 10 people, all working in the political texting and campaign world, who accused Campaign Verify of pushing an ineffective service on risk-averse campaigns with minimal transparency and misleading claims. The DSCC’s sudden announcement created widespread panic and confusion among Democratic campaign staff. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs. 

Moreover, a HuffPost investigation found that Campaign Verify’s board of six directors includes three people who have direct ties to texting vendors that would be impacted by a new verification standard: Roddy Lindsay, a co-founder of Hustle, a texting platform used by the left; and Gary Coby and Gerrit Lansing, the co-founders of Opn Sesame, a texting platform used by the right. 

Both Coby and Lansing are also currently working to reelect President Donald Trump: Coby is the Trump campaign’s digital director and Lansing is the president of WinRed, the Republican National Committee’s fundraising platform. And Hustle is the only company serving Democrats that is technologically compatible with the verification requirements put forth by Campaign Verify, according to the Democratic National Committee.

These three men have obvious conflicts of interest: They are pushing standards for an industry in which they have a clear stake in the success of specific players.

An Alarming Message

On Aug. 26, the DSCC emailed the digital directors for the Democratic Party’s 2020 Senate campaigns: “The DNC reached out and asked us to have folks verify your texting program with Campaign Verify,” the email read. Failure to get verified within the following week or two could result in their campaign text messages — an especially critical form of voter outreach during the pandemic — being blocked or filtered by wireless carriers, the DSCC warned.

The email alarmed campaign staffers, many of whom had never heard of Campaign Verify. It was unclear how the company had the authority to set protocols for political text operations — and whether the wireless carriers had actually agreed to implement the verification tool as part of their spam filtering efforts. Getting answers to those questions proved to be a circuitous and time-consuming process, according to the political professionals who spoke to HuffPost — and in the meantime, campaigns worried about having their communication with voters interrupted during the critical final stretch before the election. 

When Campaign Verify first launched its website in August, the organization claimed it had been “formed in collaboration with the DNC, RNC, and U.S. wireless carriers.” But the reference to the DNC and RNC was eventually removed. As Democratic political professionals who spoke to HuffPost learned about Coby, Lansing, and Lindsay’s role, they came to view Campaign Verify as an initiative that would benefit Opn Sesame and Hustle, the board members’ respective companies, over their competitors. Campaign Verify did not disclose the names of its board members on its website until Friday, after HuffPost asked why their names were not public.

A Campaign Verify spokesperson defended the board as a bipartisan mix of experts from the wireless industry and political campaigns, but did not address HuffPost’s specific questions about the three board members. 

For the past two weeks, political operatives on the left wondered why the DNC didn’t issue any guidance to campaigns on whether they actually needed to register with Campaign Verify, despite the DNC’s brief branding association with the company and the edict from the DSCC. “By not publicly rejecting the notion that Campaign Verify is a legitimate organization, the DNC allowed a misinformation to spread at near astronomic levels,” a Democratic operative in the SMS industry told HuffPost. “With less than 60 days to go until the single most important election in our lifetime, campaigns have spent weeks asking whether they needed to pay Campaign Verify or not.”

On Wednesday, after inquiries from HuffPost, the DNC moved to distance itself from the group. “Campaign Verify was effectively radio silent with the DNC on their technical plans for implementation between March and the end of August,” a DNC official told HuffPost. “They put our logo on their website without informing us.” 

“Unfortunately, with less than eight weeks prior to Election Day, Campaign Verify’s proposal is not the path forward for 2020. The proposal has not been adopted or technically vetted, and is simply not mature enough to solve the problem it has set out to tackle,” the DNC official said. “We are working closely with our SMS vendors to ensure we have robust plans around disinformation for the 2020 cycle, and we look forward to continuing to work with Campaign Verify and other stakeholders on a path forward beyond 2020 that is beneficial for everyone, not just the Trump campaign and financial stakeholders,” the official continued. 

A Campaign Verify spokesperson disputed the DNC’s characterization of events. According to the spokesperson, the DNC has had a board observer with Campaign Verify since June, made a recommendation about the board’s composition, and had the opportunity to provide feedback on a draft of the website in early August. (The RNC has also had a board observer.) Campaign Verify also said it provided “implementation guidance” earlier this month that would allow any texting vendor to use the nonprofit’s verification services manually without updating its own technical systems. 

“The insinuation that this would benefit any individual campaign or ‘financial stakeholder’ is disproven by this timing and the simplicity of our officially suggested implementation: anyone can manage a spreadsheet of their customer information,” the Campaign Verify spokesperson wrote. 

‘The Kind Of Age-Old Story Of Industry Capture’

The fact that Campaign Verify did not at first publicly disclose who was running the company should have been a red flag right away, several critics told HuffPost. “If it really were the case that this was an effort by ombudsman-like actors, I would think they would want to be public about who is behind their entity,” said Lucy Caldwell, a political strategist who ran former Illinois GOP Rep. Joe Walsh’s primary challenge against Trump. “I think that this is more like the kind of age-old story of industry capture, dressed up in the clothing of a nonprofit,” Caldwell added. 

For two weeks, political campaign operatives tried to figure out if they really needed to register with the nonprofit — and if the texting platform they used was even technologically compatible with the nonprofit’s authentication protocol. It was surprisingly difficult for campaigns to get a clear answer, in part because the SMS platforms who were unsure had no incentive to admit it and risk scaring off clients and the wireless carriers were evasive in providing guidance around whether verification would be required.

The DNC official told HuffPost on Wednesday that Hustle, the texting company co-founded by board member Lindsay, is the only platform on the left that is technologically compatible with Campaign Verify. Earlier this year, Hustle lost its contract with the DNC to a competitor called GetThru, which declined to comment. (The DNC also manages presidential nominee Joe Biden’s texting operation.) Lindsay, who referred to himself as a Campaign Verify co-founder in a previous version of his personal website, has since removed any mention of Campaign Verify from the site.

It’s “a pretty obvious conflict of interest,” a Democratic political strategist said. “Letting Campaign Verify propose regulatory standards for political SMS is like putting ExxonMobil in charge of the EPA,” the Democratic operative in the SMS industry added.

The Requirement That Wasn’t

Internal Campaign Verify documents aimed at potential clients and obtained by HuffPost show that the nonprofit initially overstated the need for campaigns to use its services. A Campaign Verify presentation stated that verification is “required” and that failure to comply “risks increased filtration rates or message traffic stopped entirely.” A Campaign Verify one-pager claims, “Two Tier-1 U.S. wireless carriers have adopted Campaign Verify as a requirement for Federal campaigns and committees who want to text voters in 2020.” 

In fact, the nonprofit has no official authority and none of the major wireless carriers have publicly stated that they plan to block text messages before the election from political entities that fail to enlist Campaign Verify’s services. 

AT&T and Verizon did not respond to requests for comment. (HuffPost is owned by Verizon Media, a subsidiary of Verizon.) T-Mobile updated its code of conduct earlier this month with language that suggested it would require political campaigns to use Campaign Verify or another third-party verification service, but later clarified that requirement only applied to text messages traveling through a specific channel. “We do not block any political messages, and existing political messaging campaigns are not filtered as spam, whether or not they are registered with Campaign Verify,” T-Mobile’s media relations team wrote in an email. 

Campaign Verify framing its services as required when they’re really optional “comes off as a little scammy and leaves more questions than answers,” said another Democratic operative in the SMS industry. 

The DSCC sent out updated guidance as soon as they learned campaigns did not need to use a third-party vendor to continue reaching voters, DSCC communications director Lauren Passalacqua said in an email.

The Campaign Verify spokesperson told HuffPost that the nonprofit was under the impression that two wireless carriers planned to require the use of its services before the election. “The fact that the requirement was later updated does not change the fact that we were operating under accurate (to the best of our knowledge) information at that time when we made these communications,” the spokesperson wrote. 

Like social media platforms, wireless carriers are under pressure to help stop the spread of misinformation leading up to the November election. But blocking political communications is a fraught enterprise. “The phone companies really don’t want to be in the position of Twitter and having conservatives say, ‘How come you blocked our text and not someone else’s?’ And have the answer be, ‘Well, because you guys uploaded millions of names at once and broke our spam rules and Democrats aren’t doing that on the same scale,’” the Democratic political strategist said.

Campaigns and carriers’ fears of how this would all play out created an opening for Campaign Verify and its verification promise.

Now, Campaign Verify’s operation appears to be on hold. No campaign, PAC or texting platform has paid the fee for its services, according to the group. “We welcome the DNC’s and the wireless industry’s input and participation in securing the texting channel against disinformation attacks in 2020 and beyond, and hearing more about their specific plans to prevent the systemic issue around SMS election disinformation,” the Campaign Verify spokesperson wrote. 

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