Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaking at a March 15, 2020 press conference regarding the coronavirus crisis. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

On June 19, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell sent an unusual message from her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

“Text me! 504-370-8052,” the Twitter post said. 

An hour later, Cantrell, or whoever runs the social media accounts, felt the need to clarify.

“No I have not been hacked!” a follow up tweet said. “This is a new way to communicate and I’m the first mayor to use it.”

Then, last Sunday, Cantrell posted the number again on social media, this time asking residents for help with a specific piece of city business. 

“I’m looking to name two people to the Street Renaming Commission which will make recommendations to rename streets, parks, and places in New Orleans that honor white supremacists,” a message on Twitter and Facebook said. “Text me for the application. I’ll make my decision tomorrow morning.”

The New Orleans City Council established the nine-person commission last month in response to the national and global Back Lives Matter demonstrations. Its purpose is to come up with suggestions for changing the names of a number of streets — like Jefferson Davis Parkway — and other places in the city that are currently named in honor of white supremacists and major Confederate figures. Seven members will be nominated by the council, one by the City Planning Commission and one by the mayor. 

The “Text me!” posts, however, were not posted on Cantrell’s official city social media accounts. They came from accounts maintained by her reelection campaign. And the number posted isn’t actually Cantrell’s cell phone number. It’s also maintained by the campaign. 

The offer to text Cantrell directly sparked praise from dozens of social media commenters. But some commenters raised concerns about the true motivation for the offer and the blurred line between government services and campaign activity. 

“I saw Cantrell’s tweet and thought ‘hmm, that’s different,’” Miyra Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University, told The Lens in an email. “This specific tactic: give me your information so you can be considered for a position that any resident of the city should be eligible for – this is new.”

Holman is currently writing a book about “the power and purpose of local appointed boards and commissions in the United States.”

And Dr. Robert Collins, professor of urban studies and public policy at Dillard University, said he worried that along with citizen engagement, the service was being used to collect valuable data on Cantrell’s constituents, like their phone numbers, ages and gender identity — which residents have to provide in order to get access to the service.

The company that the campaign is using for the service — Community — can also collect other data from devices without users directly providing it, including their location and web browsing data, according to a privacy policy users have to agree to. That policy also allows the company to share the information it collects with ‘Community Leaders’ like Cantrell’s campaign.

“This practice is unusual, it’s not the norm,” Collins said of the texting service. “People on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram know by now the business model of those businesses require the participants’ data being mined. … But it’s still not widely used in texting services. That would be the new issue here. Text messaging services are just starting to mine people’s data.”

Cantrell’s campaign did not respond to questions about how it planned to use data collected from residents, or whether that data would be used for her campaign or other political purposes. And Cantrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. 

‘Hey it’s LaToya!’

When you text the number posted by Cantrell’s campaign, it responds with a prompt. 

“Hey it’s LaToya!” it said. “Make sure you click the link and add yourself to my phone so I can respond to you.”

The link brings you to a sign-up sheet at Community is a California-based company that started getting attention last year when celebrities like Ashton Kutcher (an investor in the company), Kerry Washington and Amy Schumer sent out similar, cryptic messages inviting their fans to text them directly. 

The service is pitched as a way for celebrities to reach their fans on a mass scale without having to contend with social media algorithms, which critics say can stop posts from reaching all but a small fraction of their followers. Celebrities can also use the service, for a monthly fee, to better direct messages to certain fans by learning about their demographics through the software. If an artist is putting on a concert in Chicago, for example, the software would allow the celebrity to target fans in the Greater Chicago area. 

An email from Cantrell’s campaign last month claimed that Cantrell is “the first elected official in the United States to be approved to use it.” 

The software subscription was purchased in June by Cantrell’s reelection campaign. The Community phone number has only been promoted on Cantrell’s election campaign social media accounts, rather than official Mayor of New Orleans accounts. 

Kristine Breithaupt runs Last Word Strategies, which provides communications services for both Cantrell’s reelection campaign and her political action committee, Action New Orleans. Breithaupt is also currently on the July 11 ballot to represent District B on the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee.

“In past administrations, boards and commissions were an insider’s game, but it’s a new day, and Community allowed the Mayor to change that in a grassroots way,” Breithaupt told The Lens in an email. “So far, she has asked residents – who opted into the texting service – what neighborhood they live in, what issues matter to them most, and what they felt was important for the Street Renaming Commission. More than 150 people have responded about the Commission, both with specific ideas and with their general interest in serving on the renaming commission.”

Collins, however, raised concerns about the intermingling of Cantrell’s official duties and her campaign.

“It sort of interchanges what should be a pure government function with a campaign function,” Collins told The Lens. “Generally, campaign technology should not be used for the purpose of governing. The reason we have strict ethics laws is we’re trying to separate the functioning of government from the functioning of a campaign. Granted, in recent years, with the onset of social media, clearly that line’s gotten blurred.”

Both Collins and Holman said that there didn’t appear to be any clear legal violation in Cantrell’s use of the service. But Collins expressed some doubt that Cantrell’s offer to text her was truly a way to field ideas about the commission. 

The social media posts were sent around 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, and said that she would make a decision “tomorrow morning,” meaning residents had less than 24 hours to see the post and respond.  

The city government already has an interest form on its website specifically for people to officially submit their interest in joining city boards and commissions. Breithaupt did not answer a question from The Lens’ about why the texting service was used instead of the city’s form. 

“I think the ethical issue would be stating that the purpose was to get a nominee for this commission, when clearly that wasn’t the real purpose,” Collins said. “I think any reasonable person can assume, with less than a 24 hour deadline, she already had that person in mind.”

Collins said that it was “sort of false advertising,” and guessed that the campaign’s true motivation was two-fold — to make people feel that the mayor is listening to their concerns and to collect people’s data for future campaign use.

“That would be the ethical issue here, in essence, the campaign pretending this is to get candidates for a commission, when clearly the candidate for the commission was already selected, and clearly the purpose of this is to collect data for marketing purposes for a reelection campaign,” he said. “I mean, that’s pretty clear because this is not a government texting service, this is a campaign texting service. So clearly the motivation was two-fold – to allow people to think they’re giving input, but also to mine the data.”

At a Tuesday City Council Governmental Affairs Committee meeting, Cantrell nominated Kimberly Jones-Williams, the founder of NOLA Event Planners & Productions, who has worked for Cantrell, according to the company’s website. The full City Council will vote on all nine nominations during a meeting on Thursday.

“Mayor Cantrell chose Kimberly Jones-Williams, who was one of the first out of over 150 text responses, and was not a candidate prior to that,” Breithaupt said in a statement. “We are very grateful this resident of New Orleans East has offered to serve, given her background in event planning, production, and design. That will surely come in handy as we celebrate the renaming of streets, parks, and places in New Orleans.”

Concerns about how data is used

Cantrell’s campaign provided The Lens with the contract it signed with Community. It forbids the campaign from sending messages through the Community service that are directly related to political campaigning or fundraising. It does not, however, restrict how the campaign can use the data it gets from the service.

When a fan, or “Community Member,” signs up to text their favorite celebrity, or “Community Leader,” they fill out an initial sign-up sheet with their name, birthday, gender and city, with an option to include an email address. But according to the company’s privacy policy, which users have to agree to when they sign up, the software is capable of collecting much more information.

“We collect Internet, electronic activity, and other information automatically from the devices and browsers that you use and from the messages that you send,” the policy says. “This includes information about the type of device and operating system you use, your phone number, your IP address, cookie and device identifiers, the type and version of browser you use, app version, and your ISP or wireless carrier. We may also collect information about your location, such as by using your IP address to determine your approximate location.”

The policy goes on to explain how it collects information from users’ “cookies” — browsing data that websites store on users’ computers or other devices. 

“If you are a Community Member, we may share your information with the Community Leaders you are messaging with via Community,” Community’s privacy policy says. “The information practices of Community Leaders are not covered by this Privacy Policy. Before signing up to message with a Community Leader via Community, we would encourage you to review that Community Leader’s privacy policy.”

Cantrell’s campaign did not answer questions about whether it had a privacy policy. 

Collins said because it’s new, some people may not understand what they’re agreeing to when they sign up, especially among the elderly population.

“The average citizen I think probably would want to know if their data was being mined for a campaign purpose,” Collins said. “The way that this was communicated, I don’t think that was clear to the average citizen. … My mom, who’s 89 years old, do I think if she decided to put something in a text message to the mayor, would she think about that? No.”

He said that just like other rapidly evolving political technology, political data gathering through texting services is something to watch for in the future.

“Now that this service is available, I imagine as we move forward, I think we’re going to see more politicians using it, especially if it works, especially if it’s effective in mining people’s data.”

This story was updated after publication with a comment about the selection of Kimberly Jones-Williams for the Street Renaming Commission from Kristine Breithaupt.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...