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In a new text message and Facebook ad campaign, the conservative PAC American Principles Project is falsely claiming that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden supports "sex change operations for children as young as 8."
"That's way too extreme and frankly, it's really weird," read one text message received by Protocol over the weekend from someone who claimed to be "a Democratic volunteer." The text message was accompanied by a video, which the group is also running as an ad on Facebook. The ad uses a clip from a recent Biden town hall, in which Biden condemned discrimination of transgender kids. "The idea that an 8-year-old child or a 10-year-old child decides, 'You know I decided I want to be transgender. That's what I think I'd like to be. It would make my life a lot easier.' There should be zero discrimination," Biden said.
But the ad uses only the first part of the clip to misleadingly state that Biden has "endorse[d] sex changes for second-graders," a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers. As of Monday, the Facebook ads had received as many as 70,000 impressions, predominantly in Michigan and Wisconsin. The American Principles Project, which tweeted out the ad last week, didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.
Digital platforms are putting up guardrails to stop the spread of misinformation, but there are no such precautions when it comes to political text messages. Screenshot: Protocol
The text message underscores what a Wild West political texts have become. As campaigns and political groups have been forced to transition to digital methods due to COVID-19, they've embraced a patchwork of digital texting tools. And yet, even as digital platforms like Facebook have attempted to put up guardrails, however flimsy, to stop the spread of misinformation in political ads, no such precautions exist when it comes to political texts.
During the 2016 election, social media platforms faced unrelenting criticism about so-called "dark ads" on their platforms: microtargeted ads that were shown to a small subset of the electorate but which the broader public never got to see. Under pressure, Facebook created a library of all of the political ads that have run on the platform, along with details about who the ads reached and how much money was spent. Facebook also offers users the option to report ads for being misleading or false news. Twitter, meanwhile, went so far as to prohibit all political ads during the 2020 election.
Those defenses are far from perfect (as evidenced by the fact that the Biden ad is still running on Facebook), but compared to what exists in the political text messaging space, they're robust. The Federal Communications Commission has rules around robotexting, which pertain to texts sent using autodialers. But startups have found ways around those rules in recent years with peer-to-peer texting. Those tools often preload messages that campaigns want to send and phone numbers they'd like to reach, but an actual human being is the one pressing send. Still, those tools enable campaigns and political groups to flood Americans with billions of political texts every month, creating the ability for misinformation to spread at scale, without any transparency into the messages being sent.
It's unclear what tool American Principles Project was using, whether this was a preloaded campaign message or whether the person who texted Protocol was really a Democratic volunteer, as they claimed. The phone number did not respond to subsequent questions from Protocol.
The organization, which is run by former Illinois Rep. Bobby Schilling's son, Terry Schilling, has made no secret of its campaign to use anti-trans policy as a wedge issue this election. In September, the group touted a $4 million "ad blitz" in swing states related to what it called Biden's "transgender radicalism." But those ads were less explicit in their accusations against Biden, pointing to his support of the Equality Act.
Biden has released a set of policies related to stopping discrimination against transgender youth in school, but that plan includes no mention of medical procedures for children.
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