"Radical Liberals & Dems are trying to steal this election from Trump!” read the text. “We need YOU! Show your support at the corner of 12th St. & Arch St. in Philadelphia."
The message sounded like the fodder of a Trump tweet: As President Donald Trump’s chances at victory dimmed, he and party cronies baselessly claimed that Democrats were cheating and trying to “steal” a victory. Instead, as votes were tallied in Philadelphia and its suburbs late Thursday and early Friday, it became increasingly likely that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would win Pennsylvania, and with it, the presidency.
But the text urged recipients into a more specific action, with potentially nightmarish consequences.
The intersection of 12th and Arch Streets—near the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where votes were and are still being counted—was the site of a large pro-democracy demonstration, complete with “count every vote” banners and dancers dressed in ballot box costumes.
The area was also playing host to more extreme actors, and later that night would become the site of an alleged plot by two heavily armed men who traveled interstate to get there.
Dozens of social media users posted about receiving the text. They likely represented a fraction of recipients. One Philadelphia woman who shared a screenshot of the message told The Daily Beast that multiple friends in her area had also received the text.
Tom McMenamin, who lives just outside of Philadelphia, received the message and said he viewed it as part of a campaign to discredit the vote count.
“Of course it’s to cause derision and fear and to make people question the sincerity of the poll workers. They’re just following their cult leader’s demand,” McMenamin told The Daily Beast.
At least 13 phone numbers that sent the messages were owned by the corporate communications company Twilio, which leases out those numbers for political and advertising campaigns. A Twilio spokesperson said the messages violated their terms of service, and that they subsequently shut off those numbers.
"We have received several complaints from recipients of messages suggesting that the election is being stolen,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “Because these messages were sent without consumer opt-out language, which is in direct contravention of our policies, we have shut down the phone numbers in question. In addition, given the sensitive election environment, we will be very cautious about restoring messaging functionality for anyone who has violated our policies in this area."
The company did not offer any information about the person or group behind the campaign. However, the Washington Post reported Friday morning that some of the numbers had been leased by Opn Sesame, a company that provides mass-text services to Republican campaigns, and was named in a complaint this summer accusing the Trump campaign of making off-the-books payments to subcontractors, including Opn Sesame. An article in a trade publication this summer identified Opn Sesame as handling the Trump campaign’s text advertising, and Opn Sesame’s CEO lists himself on LinkedIn as digital director of the Trump campaign.
Neither the Trump campaign nor Opn Sesame immediately returned requests for comment.
Those may not be the only texts tied to the firm. A number of Pennsylvanians reported receiving anonymous text messages instructing them to visit a website, PAVoteCheck, which redirected them to the Pennsylvania Department of State's Election Ballot Status tracking website. John Scott-Railton, a cybersecurity researcher at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School, told The Daily Beast that the domain used for the link was connected to infrastructure that appeared to be connected to Opn Sesame.
DNS records also show similar domains for pivotal battleground states like Georgia and Arizona were created in recent days, according to Scott-Railton.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign and its supporters have repeatedly assailed Philadelphia—a strong Democratic voting bloc in a critical swing state—as a source of suspicion.
Despite no evidence of voter fraud, the campaign has held multiple events in the city decrying the on-going vote count, which by Friday afternoon showed a massive Biden lead locally, and a growing one statewide. Supporters of Biden, and of counting all the votes, have rallied at 12th and Arch Streets for days to cheer on the ballot-counting process.
A smaller contingent of Trump supporters has rallied across the street throughout the week, baselessly accusing Democrats of cheating. The threat of violence has stalked some of the demonstrations. Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right paramilitary group, were photographed on the anti-counting side of the demonstration, and memes online called for a demonstration at the site on Friday
On Thursday night, police reportedly took two men into custody in relation to an alleged plot to attack the site. The men allegedly drove to Philadelphia from Virginia with guns, in a Hummer decked out with stickers promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. (The theory, which has previously led believers to violence, falsely accuses Trump’s foes of Satanic pedophilia and cannibalism. QAnon networks have aggressively promoted Trump’s conspiracy theories about voter fraud.)
A spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said the mayor’s office “can’t speak to the veracity” of the threatening message Philadelphians received on Thursday.
“I can tell you that since the election, no arrests have been made stemming from election-related activities,” the spokesperson said, several hours before the arrests of the Virginia men. “Crowds have been generally peaceful and respectful.”