For reasons lost to the mists of time, I am signed up for updates from the campaign to re-elect Donald Trump as President of the United States in November.
I am a British citizen. I have been to America once, for a few weeks, on holiday. As such, I am not actually eligible to vote in US elections. I do, however, have a reasonable interest in the outcome of the election, given the influence of the US on the rest of the world. It is also several years until the next scheduled general election in the UK and quite frankly I need to get my global political fix somehow.
I have been getting these emails on and off since 2017. Since June 2020, however, there has been a marked increase in their frequency, and of late I have received between eight and eleven emails A DAY from the Trump Campaign. For example here are the emails I received on the 1st October alone:
Each of these eleven emails, and indeed the many additional emails I’ve received, asked me to contribute money to the Trump campaign, in various amounts. The October 1st requests, for example, are as follows:
- Sunny LA – YOU + President Trump: Requests at least $5 donation to be a VIP guest at an event in Los Angeles.
- We are in the fight of our life – For ONE HOUR: Requests a donation of at least $5 and states that an 800% match has been activated for one hour.
- Time is running out – Will you step up?: Requests a donation of at least $5 and states that the 800% match has been extended.
- Congratulations! – The President handpicked you: Invites me to join the ‘Trump 100 Club’ if I contribute at least $5.
- What do you think? – President Trump wants to know: Asks me to become a Trump Text Member and to take a poll in the next hour. If you click on the poll the link is broken.
- September 31st: Requests at least a $5 donation and states the 800% match has been extended for a day.
- Let’s meet up: Requests at least $5 donation to be a VIP guest at an event in Los Angeles.
- Take the Official Presidential Debate Approval Poll NOW – We’re sending the responses SOON: Doesn’t ask for money, but it says the response to their survey in my state is low and that President Trump wants to hear from me. If you click on the survey, it takes you to a page asking for a donation of at least $5.
- End-of-Quarter ALERT – 800% Match ends soon: States this is my last chance to donate at least $5 to be 800% matched.
- FINAL THREE HOURS – For a 800% MATCH: States there are three hours left for a donation of at least $5 to be 800% matched
- We need to CRUSH our goal – I need you to step up: Requests at least $5 and promises this will be 850% matched
With that barrage of communication, if I were minded to support President Trump and contributed as requested each time I would have donated at least $50 dollars on 1st October. Regardless of my views on a president who has suggested his followers inject themselves with bleach to cure them of a pandemic virus he first insisted was a Democrat hoax, it is actually illegal for the campaign to accept contributions from me, as I am a foreigner… but the emails don’t reference that. And that is, I repeat, ONE DAY of emails from the campaign.
Many of these emails are written as if I am being singled out for special treatment. For instance, on 9th August 2020 I was informed by the campaign that I was ‘TRUMP PATRIOT OF THE WEEK’.
This was exciting and slightly baffling news for me, what with my not being a US citizen, and given I have never actually communicated with the Trump campaign. It seems I am not alone: browsing Twitter that day, there seemed to be a lot of other people who had also been told that they were Trump’s patriot of the week. So many, in fact, that I *think* these emails are being mass mailed, rather than specifically sent to me…
Emails from the campaign are very distinctive – each has the following in common:
- It is written as if I am one of Donald Trump’s favourite people and he knows who I am.
- It requests money.
- It suggests that Donald Trump will know if I don’t donate and will be unhappy.
- It suggests the money I give will be rewarded with more money.
- A time limit is put on when I can donate if I want to benefit from the donation.
- It contains bold, eye-catching graphics and lots of CAPITALISATION.
Given the format of these emails, something has been bothering me: it felt like I had read messages like this before. Messages that, should they find the right audience, could be very profitable. Then it hit me; I used to receive messages very similar to the Trump emails from another man who will be familiar to lots of people who have followed the western skeptical movement: Reverend Peter Popoff.
For the un-initiated, Peter Popoff is a televangelist who has preached the gospel for decades, and has claimed to be able to heal all manner of illnesses through the miraculous power of god. He came to the attention of the skeptical community in the mid-1980s when James Randi and Steve Shaw (known as Banachek) used radio scanners to intercept radio transmissions between Popoff and his wife during a show. These transmissions showed that Popoff’s wife was feeding Popoff information about audience members through an earpiece. The evidence was presented on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Popoff filed for bankruptcy in 1987.
However, in the late 1990s Popoff had a resurgence, with infomercials depicting him healing the sick in the same way as had been previously exposed. These infomercials started to run in the UK in 2009, offering miracle mineral water to cure what was ailing you – be it health or financial concerns. This is how he came to my attention, and I applied for some of his miracle water, as he was sending it out for free. Over the course of several months I received dozens and dozens of letters with all manner of ‘miracle’ items that promised that if I planted a ‘seed gift’ of money this would be repaid with much more money, a miracle cure or other windfall. I made further requests for my dog and a cuddly toy, but God did not seem to feel it important to tell Popoff that these requests weren’t from human beings and they also got letters from Popoff. Exactly the same letters, down to the personalisation and signature. I tell all about it in this talk I gave a few years ago.
Letters from Popoff were very distinctive – each had the following in common:
- They were written as if I am one of God/ Popoff’s favourite people and they know who I am.
- They requested money.
- They suggested that God/ Popoff will know if I don’t donate and will be unhappy.
- They suggested the money I give will be rewarded with more money.
- A time limit is put on when I can donate if I want to benefit from the donation.
- They contained bold, eye-catching graphics and lots of CAPITALISATION.
It may be difficult to understand why any organisation would send messages like these when a quick google would show you that these messages are being sent to large numbers of people and are from people who have a track record of problematic finances or even proven fraud. One would think that the reputational damage from acting in this apparently dishonest way would be too high for such famous or influential people to do.
However, this is where I and my fellow skeptics need to consider who these messages are aimed at. To me, and the many people I see on social media laughing at the emails they are getting from Trump, these emails are clearly not being sent in good faith. However, this style of communication must be sufficiently worthwhile for the senders to justify the reputational damage. A quick internet search will show you on Popoff’s own Wikipedia page that he is a proven fraud, or that Trump Campaign emails claiming to be directed at one person are actually being sent out en masse. They are getting through to some people. And clearly enough people to make it worthwhile.
Despite Popoff being exposed on national television as a fraud and having had numerous negative rulings made against his infomercials by regulatory bodies in the UK he is STILL offering his ‘miracle’ water on his website. At the time of writing, you cannot request ‘miracle’ water outside of the US – I suspect that this is in large part to a number of successes in recent years from the campaigning of The Good Thinking Society.
Messages like these from Trump and Popoff seem designed to exploit the vulnerable and the desperate. In much the same way we hear of elderly people being scammed out of their savings by dodgy salesmen, these messages seem designed to overwhelm someone lacking in tech skills or who might have issues with their memory. The Trump campaign emails, really, seem like a slicker, more modern version of Popoff’s tried and tested ‘miracle’ letters. They follow the same patterns, are written in the same way, and they all request money.
However, while these messages might seem nakedly and even comically exploitative to most people, we should bear in mind that if they weren’t effective for at least some people, they wouldn’t have been sent. I imagine people like my dad, a tirelessly hardworking man nearing retirement and badly hit by the last recession. And hit again by the currently unfolding financial crisis while supporting a medically vulnerable partner. I imagine what would happen if he lived in the US and, believing in the American dream, felt he was just on the brink of financial security after many setbacks. I imagine what he might feel if it seemed like the President of the United States (and self-proclaimed billionaire) or God himself was paying close, personal attention to him and his plight. I can easily see how he might not check out these messages as thoroughly as I have.
We need to make sure we are understanding and compassionate when trying to tackle this kind of practice by those prepared to exploit marginalised groups in society. Simple ridicule is not likely to change minds, especially where someone may have already parted with some money. And laughing about ridiculous emails on twitter is not going to reach people who will fork out their limited income in response to these requests.
Finally, in the interests of fairness, I also attempted to sign up to campaign emails from Joe Biden. However, the sign up process for his emails requested my zip code. When I wasn’t able to legitimately provide one, I couldn’t sign up. I double checked the Trump Campaign at the same time, to make sure they hadn’t tightened up their sign-up criteria and… well, I think I’m about to get a LOT more emails between now and November 3rd.