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How political campaigns are raising millions through unwitting donors


Political campaigns have raised tens of millions of dollars from people who may not have intended to donate the money. That's because of a little box online that may or may not have been checked. Our colleagues at The Indicator from Planet Money, Adrian Ma and Darian Woods, dig into the power of something called dark defaults.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Back in the fall of 2020, Ron Maggorie wanted to donate some of his money to political campaigns.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Ron lives in Florida. He's an entrepreneur and a Republican.

MA: Ron remembers donating a few thousand bucks in one-off contributions to a few political campaigns. But later on, he got an alert from his credit card company saying that these campaigns wanted to charge him more, around $20,000 more.

RON MAGGORIE: I don't want to say I was upset, but I was definitely concerned that they could do that so easily.

MA: The reason that Ron was being charged $20,000 for donations that he did not even remember making, is that he didn't see the box, a little pre-checked box on the donation page of these political fundraising websites that essentially said, make my donation a weekly recurring donation.

WOODS: This opt-in by default isn't unique to political fundraising websites. You know, it's all over the internet.

MA: Even smarty-pants researchers from Columbia University are not immune to this.

ERIC JOHNSON: I just spent a large part of my day unsubscribing from websites that I'm pretty convinced I never subscribed to.

NATE POSNER: Yeah, I'm right there with Eric.

MA: That's Eric Johnson, a professor of marketing, and Nate Posner, a Ph.D. candidate. Nate says all these are everyday examples of what they call dark defaults. And the idea here is similar to the concept of dark patterns. Dark patterns are these ways of designing websites and apps to essentially trick people into doing something.

WOODS: Eric and Nate wanted to understand how dark defaults are used in political fundraisers. So they downloaded millions of donor records, which by law are public. They wanted to know, who's using these, and how effective are they?

POSNER: And what we found was that about half of the top Republicans had this pre-checked checkbox on their web page that if you didn't notice it, then your donation would repeat every week.

MA: So if a donor pledged $100 on day one, by default, they would be opted into donating $100 the next week. Nate says he found this pre-checked box tactic deployed on eight different Republican fundraising websites.

POSNER: The Democrats didn't do it to the same degree from what we could see.

WOODS: So for this study, they focused on those Republican fundraising sites. And the first question that they asked was whether presenting donors with a default pre-checked box made a difference in the amount of money that a campaign raised. And the answer was, yes, it does.

MA: By making this very subtle tweak, the campaigns raised about 43 million more dollars than they would have otherwise. That equals about 11% of the total that they raised.

WOODS: Of course, our guy in Florida, Ron, who was hit with a $20,000 surprise bill...

MA: What he did next was contact WinRed, which is a Republican fundraising platform. He says they were pretty good about refunding his money quickly, but the whole experience still left a kind of sour taste in his mouth.

MAGGORIE: I thought that it was unethical.

WOODS: Some policymakers agree. State and federal legislators have proposed banning pre-checked boxes on fundraising websites.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.