For years, Facebook and Twitter have faced criticism for contributing to the spread of false political information -- such as untrue claims about mail-in ballots, or lies about who actually won the last presidential election.
But social media platforms aren't the only tech companies that transmit incorrect information relating to elections. This week, a company hired by a Republican political action committee used Twilio's platform to send misleading text messages to Democrats in Kansas, urging them to vote in favor of a state constitutional amendment that would have enabled state lawmakers to outlaw abortion.
The messages wrongly stated, “Voting YES on the Amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health,” when a yes vote actually would have allowed the state legislature to ban abortions.
The amendment was proposed by state Republicans after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the state constitution protected women's right to abortions. (That decision allows lawmakers to impose some restrictions, but not the kinds of bans that right-wing politicians have been pushing in other states.)
The committee that sent the messages was identified by the Washington Post as Do Right PAC, chaired by former Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Republican who represented Kansas in Congress. That group had tapped Alliance Forge -- a political mobile-marketing firm based in Sparks, Nevada -- for the campaign. Alliance Forge used Twilio's platform to send the messages on Monday.
Twilio says it suspended the account late Monday afternoon after determining the account had violated the acceptable use policy, which prohibits content that's “inappropriate,” or “objectionable,” and also prohibits users from engaging in activity that's “deceptive.”
The messages themselves didn't violate the state's electioneering law, which doesn't require text messages about constitutional initiatives to disclose who paid for the campaign, according to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
Kansas also doesn't require political ads to be truthful. It's not clear any state could institute such a requirement, given that false statements are broadly protected by the First Amendment.
“Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a 2012 decision, referring to George Orwell's “1984.” The decision in that case invalidated a law that would have made it a crime for people to lie about their military service.
The texting campaign came less than one week after the Federal Communications Commission warned consumers of an increase in text-related scams. While that warning focused on messages seeking money or information, the Kansas campaign shows that texts can be problematic for other reasons.
In any event, the misleading texts don't appear to have affected the outcome of the election: Kansas voters rejected the amendment by a margin of 19 points.