Saskatchewan

If 'Kate from the Sask. Party' is texting you, here's why it's allowed — and how you can try to stop it

The Saskatchewan Party is using so-called "robotexts" as part of its campaign leading up to the fall provincial election — and one expert says during the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of communication may be the new reality.

Sask. Party using so-called robotexts as part of 2020 campaign

Some people have referred to the Saskatchewan Party's text campaign as 'spam' on social media, although there are no laws preventing such messages. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

The Saskatchewan Party is using so-called "robotexts" as part of its campaign leading up to the fall provincial election — and one expert says during the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of communication may be the new reality.

Jason Lietaer, a political strategist with the communications firm Enterprise Canada, said text messaging can now be more useful than door-knocking or sending emails.

"There's a lot of junk email that comes in," Lietaer explained. "Generally people who know you, who have your phone number — those are the people you're responding to."

The strategy behind texting, he said, "is to get right to that real estate, and sort people out who might support you versus those who don't."

Lietaer said if you reply with something "salty," the party then knows not to waste another dollar or minute trying to get you to the polls on election day. 

"If you're angry, they probably haven't lost much," he said. "You probably weren't going to vote for them anyways."

Some people have referred to the campaign as "spam" on social media and have posted their in-depth responses to "Kate," the Sask. Party's automated messenger. 

Someone has even created a fake "Kate" account on Twitter. 

One text recipient was Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina.

He had seen people posting the texts on Twitter — some disgruntled and others making a joke out of the situation. He decided to take the opportunity to bring up his concerns over the province's back-to-school plan in a tongue-in-cheek way. 

Couros said it's possible that political parties are looking to see what people are saying on social media, but most likely, they are looking for a "yes" or a "no" in a text-messaging campaign.

"The people that are saying they're willing to support your party, they're also probably … implicitly saying that you can use this number to contact me again," said Couros. 

Despite some unsavoury reviews, Sask. Party executive director Patrick Bundrock said the response from the public has been positive. 

"This is one strategy that enables us to reach voters, as does social media and other methods that are available to political parties," said Bundrock. "We want to make sure that we are as respectful as possible of Saskatchewan voters."

Bundrock said the party hired North American company iMarketing Solutions to run the campaign. 

How did they get my number?

Bundrock told CBC that the party obtained phone numbers using the Canadian Numbering Plan.

That's managed by the Canadian Numbering Administrator, which provides phone numbers to the Canadian telecommunications industry.

It also provides new area codes when needed, and the first three numbers that follow the area code.

These six digits can be programmed into a robocaller, which then texts all of the possible number combinations using the first six digits and the remaining four.

Is it really spam?

Elections Saskatchewan, which oversees provincial electoral events, said The Election Act does not regulate texts. 

According to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), text messages or emails asking for your support for a political party or candidate, or requesting your opinion on various issues, are not subject to Canada's anti-spam legislation, sometimes referred to as CASL. That's because those communications are not commercial in nature.

Similarly, an electronic message that directly solicits cash donations, or that promotes an event or fundraiser with proceeds flowing to a political party or candidate, would be excluded from Section 6 of CASL, which deals with "unsolicited electronic messages."

"If you do not want to receive political messages, you could ask the sender to remove you from their list," the CRTC website says.

"However, if CASL does not apply to the message, there is no requirement for the sender to respect your request."

Text and email messages are an increasingly popular approach for political parties to gauge support and gather data, the CRTC says.

A change in tune

The Saskatchewan New Democratic Party has utilized text campaigns in the past and said it's still one of the many ways the Opposition party communicates with people. 

In 2017, during question period, then-Premier Brad Wall said the NDP obtained the cell numbers of thousands of Saskatchewan residents and was sending out "spam." 

Referring to Trent Wotherspoon, the NDP leader at the time, Wall asked, "Is he running to be next NDP leader, or a Nigerian prince?"

Current NDP Leader Ryan Meili said it's "ironic" that Wall was so opposed to the NDP's past use of cellphones to contact people. 

"That was something Premier Wall thought was terrible, but now Kate has contacted nearly everyone in the province," Meili said. "I'm really enjoying the saucy responses she's getting."

John Tzupa, provincial secretary and CEO of the Saskatchewan NDP, said the party also reaches supporters by telephone, mail and digital advertising on social media.

"You want to talk to as many voters as possible and you're going to use different methods of communication," said Tzupa.

"Nothing ever replaces any of the existing methods — like, we're out door-knocking right now while we can, and we're always looking at other ways to communicate."

Tzupa said the NDP compiles its contact list from voter lists, in-person interactions — often with members or donors —  and from the phone book. 

He wouldn't say whether the NDP uses the Canadian Numbering Plan as well, but said the party gets "help from providers."

Lietaer said in the time of COVID-19, some national parties are even doing Zoom calls with supporters, which he said could be effective in places like Saskatchewan, where federal leaders rarely visit in person. 

However, he said there is a risk that parties will fatigue supporters if they contact them too much, especially if they're asking for donations repeatedly.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Soloducha is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from Radio-Canada's Gregory Wilson

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