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The Trump 2020 app is a voter surveillance tool of extraordinary power

Both presidential campaigns use apps to capture data, but Trump's asks to scoop up your identity, your location, and control of your phone's Bluetooth function.
Campaign 2020 apps
Ms Tech | Wikimedia, Unsplash
    • The Trump campaign app uses data to sidestep online platforms
    • Biden's app accesses phone contacts to build "relational organizing"
    • The Trump app's inspiration appears to come from India's Narendra Modi

Ahead of President Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his 2020 re-election campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted about the event. “Just passed 800,000 tickets,” he wrote. “Biggest data haul and rally signup of all time by 10x. Saturday is going to be amazing!”

Parscale’s numbers for the rally—originally scheduled for Juneteenth and still set to occur just miles from the site of one of American history’s deadliest acts of racial violence—have come in for criticism after only 6,200 people actually turned up, with sign-up numbers supposedly inflated by pranking teens and K-pop fans. But even on the surface, his claim was confusing: the venue holds only 19,000 people. So what was the campaign doing signing up so many people for tickets? 

The clue lies in Parscale’s use of the phrase “data haul.”

Data collection and targeted online messaging were integral to the 2016 US presidential election, and they will be again in 2020. But there has been a shift. In the same way that candidates in the last cycle used Facebook to reach and persuade voters, ongoing research from our team at the propaganda research lab at UT Austin’s Center for Media Engagement suggests that 2020 will be defined by the use of bespoke campaign apps. Purpose-built applications distributed through the App Store and Google Play Store allow the Trump and Biden teams to speak directly to likely voters. They also allow them to collect massive amounts of user data without needing to rely on major social-media platforms or expose themselves to fact-checker oversight of particularly divisive or deceptive messaging. 

Trump 2020: A data-hungry channel for disproven claims

The Official Trump 2020 app, which has been downloaded approximately 780,000 times according to the measurement service Apptopia, launched in mid-April. 

The app has “News” and “Social” tabs offering carefully selected feeds of tweets and articles that reinforce the campaign’s talking points, often actively deceiving readers with highly questionable or entirely disproven information under headlines such as “Media Continue to Spread Debunked Theory About Tear Gas,” “Media Mask-Shamers Keep Getting Caught Breaking Their Own Rules,” or “Top 8 Moments from Joe Biden’s Embarrassingly Disastrous, Epically Boring Livestream.” Most messages, articles, and announcements inside the Trump app have no named author; they rarely cite sources beyond government press releases and tweets from Trump’s own supporters and White House staff. The app also has campaign releases that attack social-media companies like Twitter and Snapchat, berating them for perceived bias and lack of transparency on one hand while adopting opaque and attention-driven strategies themselves. 

Users are required to provide their phone number full name, email address, and zip code. The campaign intends to collect the cell-phone numbers of 40 to 50 million voters.

Data collection—as Parscale’s comment suggested—is perhaps the most powerful thing the Trump 2020 app does. On signing up, users are required to provide a phone number for a verification code, as well as their full name, email address, and zip code. They are also highly encouraged to share the app with their existing contacts. This is part of a campaign strategy for reaching the 40 to 50 million citizens expected to vote for Trump’s reelection: to put it bluntly, the campaign says it intends to collect every single one of these voters’ cell-phone numbers. This strategy means the app also makes extensive permission requests, asking for access to location data, phone identity, and control over the handset’s Bluetooth function.

The app has already received some criticism, not least from security researchers who found it had left information exposed that could allow hackers to access the user data. The response to this made the campaign’s priorities clear: they rapidly fixed the bug once it had been disclosed, but still maximized the data they themselves could collect. They want as much voter data as possible, even if they don’t want it left vulnerable to outsiders—and will use it in any way they see fit. 

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”

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.

With relational organizing, the Team Joe app 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. In our study—where the participants were interviewed on condition of anonymity, as is typical in our work—one prominent Mexican journalist elaborated on this:

“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 interviewed for our study 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.

The parallels between Trump and Modi run deeper than their apps, of course. Both politicians have publicly honored Twitter trolls. Both actively cultivate reciprocal relationships with content creators on the radical and far right, ultimately seeking to build a direct line to these groups over the heads of media watchdogs and fact-checkers. Similarities appear in their day-to-day rhetoric too, with Trump referring to his digital activists as the “Army for Trump” and Modi calling his local actors “IT warriors.” 

For political movements revolving around a charismatic, illiberal leader, the shift to individualized apps that blur the line between government and private communication is the next step toward independence from both the “mainstream media” and the social-media platforms that allowed them to create a fact-agnostic communication channel in the first place. The line between government and campaign is not always clear either.  Local governments often hand out free phones that have the Modi app pre-installed. Swati Chaturvedi, an Indian journalist and the author of I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, said of the app:

This is where it gets interesting, because [the app is] partially funded by the BJP, it is a BJP tool, but it is now officially used by the government of India. So there is a huge gray line there. There’s an overlap because it is also putting out government material … it’s an epidemic of fake news now …

The government is pushing it. Everywhere Mr. Modi goes on a foreign visit, there’s a stall … and you just kind of walk in there and you get a sign-up for the Namo app and it’s just like a one-way tool of propaganda. So it is funded by the BJP, Mr. Modi’s personal idea, intellectual property, but now it’s also pushed by the government of India.” 

Trump’s casino-like campaign app seems to be his own attempt to create a “one-way tool of propaganda.” Its deployment is part of a global trend, piggybacking on years of unresolved privacy and security issues within the app ecosystem. As researchers studying the intersection of technology and propaganda, we understand that political groups tend to lag behind the commercial ad industry. But when they catch up, the consequences to truth and civil discourse can be devastating. 

The array of data-gathering tools the Trump and Modi apps use are a legacy of a “freemium” social-media and app landscape that is manipulative, non-transparent, and purposefully addictive, with a mentality of “collect data first and ask question later.” For the last five to 10 years, the pervasiveness of these tools and their use in data scooping has been well documented. Sporadic, state-by-state data regulations have been the only response. In Europe, the GDPR was a big step toward meaningful consent and transparency, but the Official Trump 2020 App does not fall under its jurisdiction. A global perspective is now critical to understanding the implications of data-fueled political manipulation and preparing for the next wave of disinformation. Countries must work together to create effective regulation, and citizens must demand this of them.

It took about five years for Modi’s strategies to jump from India to the US, and in the next few years we are on track to see the arrival of strategies used in the dark-money disinformation campaigns of Mexico and Latin America. The Mexican journalist we'd interviewed for our study put it this way: “I think what’s coming all around the world is going to be very chaotic, at least in [the US], I think you’re on the brink of a sort of civil war in one or two years ... You’re going to have a lot of work to do.”

—Jacob Gursky and Samuel Woolley are members of the Propaganda Research Team at the Center for Media Engagement, University of Texas at Austin.

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