Sunday, October 26, 2008

Robocall Rants: e-lectioneering 2.0

I knew that robocalls had arrived in Australia. Nevertheless, when Prime Minister John Howard rang me before last year’s election I was startled by his voice at first. Because it was a recorded message, my colourful response was wasted.

It’s the electronic age in political campaigning these days. We are now well acquainted with the political use of the Web. Party and candidate websites, blogging, social networking pages, online videos, and internet advertising are just some of the techniques used.

It has been a multi-media frenzy in the U.S. this presidential election season. Opponents of Barack Obama have even been direct-mailing DVDs to spread their smears. As Huffington Post reported recently:

This week, 28 million copies of a right-wing, terror propaganda DVD are being mailed and bundled in newspaper deliveries to voters in swing states. The 60-minute DVDs, titled Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, are landing on doorsteps in a campaign coinciding with the 7th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Pro-McCain Group Dumping 28 Million Terror Scare DVDs in Swing States
Jillian York captured some of the reaction at Voices without Votes:
Almost immediately, newspapers began receiving complaints for their inclusion of the DVD, which was funded by The Clarion Fund, a group set up to combat “the most urgent threat of radical Islam.” Bloggers in the U.S. and abroad have expressed anger at both the distribution of the DVDs and the related crime. Global: “Obsession” Propaganda Film Incites Anger
Political Spam via email is also part of this Campaigning 2.0. Organisations such as Moveon in the U.S. and GetUp! in Australia use direct email to their subscribers as a major campaigning tool. You can also sign up to SMS or text messages from political candidates, such as Obama’s Vice Presidential announcement. This kind of email is supposed to be sent with the agreement of the recipient but unsolicited messages have become more common:
I recently received a spam that supports the case of Michael Skelly for Congress, saying negative things about incumbent John Culberson. What's interesting: this is my home precinct. These people are actually competing for my vote. This leads to the question: how on earth did the Skelly people manage to map my work email address to my home mailing address? Privacy Digest: Targeted political spam
Robocalls are now on the frontline. These phone calls use computerized auto-dialling and a computer-delivered recorded message. In other words, telephone Spam. They have become a major smear weapon:
It was perhaps predictable that the task of recording the worst of McCain's robo-slime -- the worst so far, at least -- would fall to Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani has recorded a new McCain robocall in which he suggests, in effect, that Barack Obama doesn't think sex offenders, drug dealers and murders should have to go to jail, according to Jennifer Henderson, a stay-at-home mom in Maine who tells us she received the call.
In New McCain Robocall, Rudy Giuliani Suggests Obama Opposes Jailing Murderers And Rapists
The Washington Monthly reported on the twists and turns:
John McCain hated robocalls eight years ago when they were used to smear him and his family. John McCain hated robocalls nine months ago when his rivals for the Republican nomination used the tactic against him. And yet, McCain loves robocalls now.
It turns out, when Bush used robocalls to destroy McCain eight years ago, he relied on a firm called FLS, run by a Republican activist named Jeff Larson. And who is McCain paying now to smear Barack Obama with deceptive robocalls? Jeff Larson's FLS. Political Animal: ROBOCALL IRONY....
There is even an anti-robocall YouTube video from the Obama campaign replaying a robocall smear and calling for a fight back: McCain's Robocalls: An All Out Assault. In fact there is compelling evidence that negative campaigning can be counter productive. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 56% of registered voters polled thought McCain was “too personally critical” of his opponent compared with 26% who felt that about Obama. Growing Doubts About McCain's Judgment, Age and Campaign Conduct

The latest allegation of robocall smears also comes from the Huffington Post, an unashamedly anti-McCain source:
The McCain campaign has authorized another vicious robocall that claims Barack Obama and Democrats would cut off funds for the military, have accused American troops of "war crimes," and pose a threat to national security.
New McCain Robocall: Obama "Accused US Troops Of War Crimes"
There is already a bias against Spam email based on user experiences. Certainly we are all sick of having to listen to a recorded voice or music which goes on interminably. A political robocall is likely to come in between two nuisance ads from Call Centres given their frequency. These kinds of communication have inbuilt negatives which can destroy the message. But would they be doing it if their focus groups or sales figures indicated that these methods don't work? Direct mail through the post has a low take up but advertisers still find it very effective. Canada Post certainly think so. By the amount of traffic, the same must be true of telephone sales.

Australia has laws against Spam and unwanted phone calls. There is an opt-out service for telephones services called the Do Not Call Register but many organisations are exempt, including political groups. The U.S. has a Federal Do Not Call Register that similarly does not block political organisations. There is a private group, The National Political Do Not Contact Registry, which offers to contact politicians for free asking them to stop sending robocalls.

There has been one case where apparently a group was fined $100,000 for sending anonymous robocall messages to voters in North Carolina during the primaries this year. Women's Group Pays $100,000 Fine For N.C. Robocalls they had breached laws requiring them to identify the source of the call and provide contact details.

Spam is illegal here:
Under the Spam Act 2003 it is illegal to send, or cause to be sent, unsolicited commercial electronic messages. The Act covers email, instant messaging, SMS and MMS (text and image-based mobile phone messaging) of a commercial nature. It does not cover faxes, internet pop-ups or voice telemarketing. Australian Communications and Media Authority: Spam & e–Security
Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t stopped the flow of unwelcome messages but the flood seems to have receded. coincidentally I received one from Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) offering me a slice of $US 2.5 million. Pretty attractive given the current exchange rate. Strange that it has a Yahoo China email address. Obviously easier to get things out of there than in.

It will be interesting to see if these responses will be enough to protect Australians from intrusive political messages that are often mischievous and misleading. No doubt we will follow the e-lectioneering trends from across the Pacific.

The vexed issue of how the law should deal with false or misleading claims in new digital-age campaigning must wait for another post.

It's bound to be one step behind the technology.


The New York Times reports on spam politicking at its worst:
A new e-mail making the rounds among Jewish voters in Pennsylvania this week falsely alleged that Mr. Obama “taught members of Acorn to commit voter registration fraud,’’ and equated a vote for Senator Barack Obama with the “tragic mistake” of their Jewish ancestors, who “ignored the warning signs in the 1930’s and 1940’s.”

At first blush, it was typical of the sorts of e-mails floating around with false, unsubstantiated and incendiary claims this year.

But where most of the attack e-mails against Mr. Obama have been mostly either anonymous or from people outside of mainstream politics, this one had an unusually official provenance: It was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s “Victory 2008” committee.
Pennsylvania Republicans Send False Anti-Obama E-mail

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