A member of our research team discovered that the app was compiled with an older version of Android, which does not include some of the latest privacy improvements, and uses software provided by a company called Phunware, well known for collecting people’s location information and relations with the Trump campaign, a role highlighted by a Wall Street Journal investigation last year. Phunware has come under major scrutiny recently for accepting millions of dollars in federal loans intended to help small businesses cope with the coronavirus, and in May Nasdaq filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to delist the company over its finances. Phunware’s invasive tactics for gathering data and reaching voters have drawn comparisons to Cambridge Analytica.
Team Joe: Your contacts are critical
Team Joe, the app put together by Joe Biden’s campaign, has some surface similarities to the Trump app, but it is a very different proposition. It does some things that the Trump app does, including sending users notifications of upcoming campaign events or training sessions for digital activists. But where the Trump app has range of uses, from spreading tailored campaign messages to airing live streams of rallies, Team Joe is largely built for a single purpose: relational organizing. This concept is spelled out in the Team Joe Digital Tool Kit:
“Relational organizing is when volunteers leverage their existing networks and relationships in support of our candidate, Joe Biden. Friend-to-friend contact is one of the most effective methods for having meaningful conversations about our campaign, and it is an efficient way to persuade and identify supporters … We are calling voters and caucusgoers to identify supporters and persuade friends and family to support Joe. These conversations with targeted voters and caucusgoers to increase support will make a big difference in electing Vice President Biden.”
Practically, this means that when you download the app you are prompted to share your contact list, which is then cross-referenced with the party’s voter files. The system identifies people you may have a personal connection with who might be persuaded to vote for Biden. From there, it prompts you to send these potentially undecided folks personalized messages.
One organizer explains how this works during a Joe Biden Action Center app orientation:
“Conversations that you have with friends or family are always a little more meaningful. And sometimes, if I’m calling a voter, they might have gone through something very traumatic, like a really bad hospitalization that they might not want to talk about with a random volunteer … but they might talk to you about ‘Oh, yeah. I had cancer and it was terrible but the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, really helped me in that process.’ So if you do want to help us do that you can text App to 30330, or if you don’t wanna do that you can just go to joe.link/app.”
Relational organizing is a nuanced version of data targeting. Its principles are not new—both Obama presidential campaigns heavily relied on it—but like many political communication strategies, it has consequences that change with scale, advanced data analytics, and automation. The Biden app uses advanced data parsing practices but is not exactly automated. It blurs the line between the personal and the political.
Our ongoing research—which is mostly qualitative and involves interviews with tech makers, political marketers, and campaign members—has revealed that data-driven relational organizing is becoming the go-to outreach strategy for US political campaigns. Interviewees extol the virtues of highly personalized text messages sent by volunteers, a practice fine-tuned by the Bernie Sanders campaign. This and similar forms of relational organizing are already the norm in Mexico and Latin America, where they are used not to increase civic engagement but instead by mass manipulators seeking to adapt to the increased scrutiny of bots and sock-puppet accounts. A prominent Mexican journalist elaborated on this in a recent interview with us:
“Well, in Latin America and in Mexico we don’t use bots or software. It was left behind a few years ago because it was really easy to detect on Twitter or Facebook and by researchers like me … we are entering an era of war propaganda, and I think that’s where the trend is headed.”
What they want from you
If you want to understand what the Trump and Biden apps are really for, compare the permissions requested in the Google Play Store. Besides some basic network and notification permissions, the Team Joe Campaign App may ask for access to your contacts. The Official Trump 2020 App has a much longer list of access requests. It wants to read your contacts and know your precise and approximate location (GPS and network based). It requests the ability to read your phone status and identity (a vague permission that sometimes gives access to unique device numbers), pair with Bluetooth devices (such as geolocation beacons), and perhaps read, write, or delete from SD cards in the device.
The use of Bluetooth is especially notable because it can capture data and target people with political messages as they travel through a physical space. This practice has jumped to politics from the advertising industry. In one recent example, Bluetooth beacons (the radio transmitters used to track cell-phone users via Bluetooth signals) were found in campaign yard signs. In another, people were surveilled using these practices when they went to church. Our team has been exploring how this phenomenon—which we term geo-propaganda—has increased.
As you walk past a beacon embedded in a campaign sign or some other part of the physical environment, you are recorded and identified through Bluetooth or similar means. This data is then used to build a profile that can be used to advertise to you or people like you. One political consultant we recently interviewed explained how this practice developed long before political apps were created:
“They [the apps] are plugged into different marketplaces, so if you open up Facebook or Google Maps or Candy Crush, even though you didn’t explicitly do anything—if you have location access enabled on those apps, that app will record your location at the instance you opened that app, and then that information can be sold to a third party.”
These third parties include data brokers like Acxiom or Resonate, which are part of a billion-dollar shadow industry dedicated to buying and selling data collected from disparate sources. To understand how granular the data can be, take a moment to look through the categories in Acxiom’s consumer data products catalogue. Political campaigns purchase that information and combine it with other data and tools—from other social-media companies, say—to build “lookalike audiences” that include people similar to those who had their data scooped. This means that even if you have your own location permissions disabled, you may be caught in politicians’ nets because you behave similarly to other people who have shared their location.
This makes campaign apps part of a larger system of surveillance capitalism. Yes, they provide firsthand data about a campaign’s strongest supporters. But they are also designed to use that data to build lists of similar citizens. Meanwhile, they provide the infrastructure to help users in these closed media environments bring in like-minded people through relational organizing by way of the addictive engagement strategies that social media and apps have perfected in the past 20 years.
What next? Look at India
To understand the future of political campaign apps, it is useful to look to India. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, a controversial right-wing populist, launched his Namo app in 2015. It has since become one of the most widely used politician’s apps in the world, with over 10 million downloads in the Google Play Store. The app was pushed through official government channels and collected large amounts of data for years through opaque phone access requests. In late 2019 it received a makeover that included live events, Instagram-like “Stories” about Modi, gamified engagement strategies, means of accepting micro-donations, and promises of a direct line to the prime minister. President Trump’s app is clearly following in those footsteps.
Other tactics of Modi’s might tell us where Trump’s and Biden’s digital campaigns will go. His team’s abuse of WhatsApp and Twitter is essentially an open secret, with cells of supporters in local districts given the task of spreading information (and disinformation) on these and other channels, often through shared Google Docs of approved tweets and images created by the party heads. His app itself is a fertile propagator of misinformation. and his party, the BJP, also engages in extensive data targeting campaigns, bolstered by data broker equivalents and the social stratification imposed by the caste system. Another signal we are seeing lies in the rise of centralized messaging repositories similar to those banks of content used by Modi and his cells. The Biden campaign, albeit with more transparency and without the inclination toward disinformation, is utilizing these scripts much as the Clinton and Obama teams did.