October 17, 2018

Warning: Political ads make you stupid

This is the disclaimer that Britain’s Public Interest Research Centre recently ” target=”_hplink”>$3 billion of campaign commercials will have run on TV.  It’d be a new day for democracy if political ads were required to include a disclaimer: “The scary music, PhotoShopped pictures and misleading sound bites in this ad are tricks intended to manipulate you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Voting for this candidate is unlikely to improve how awful things are; hope can heartbreak.”

Maybe on some other planet that will happen, but not this one.  In the absence of consumer warnings on political ads, we have five things to pin our hopes on.

  • Education:  Critical thinking and media literacy – understanding the history and methods of propaganda – are part of the school curriculum.  An educated citizen can’t be fooled by meretricious bull.
  • Freedom of speech:  The best cure for bad speech is more speech.  If ads lie, they can be countered by other ads that correct them.  The robust free market of ideas will ensure that truth prevails.
  • Transparency:  Candidates must appear in their ads and say, “I approved this message.”  The sources of funding for ads to elect or defeat candidates are required to be disclosed. 
  • Freedom of the press:  The fourth estate is part of our system of checks and balances.  ” target=”_hplink”>ad watches, ” target=”_hplink”>“keeping them honest” segments: the sunlight of journalism acts a disinfectant. 
  • Social media:  Citizens have been empowered by the Internet.  Everyone with a laptop can now be a publisher and broadcaster.  You don’t need a paycheck from a news organization to investigate claims and report abuses.

So how’s all that working out?

I’m not betting on media literacy to protect voters from disinformation.  Only ” target=”_hplink”>seven in 10 say scientists have falsified climate change research data.  Despite what they hear in school, ” target=”_hplink”>Rick Perry and ” target=”_hplink”>failed to label them as liars; instead of holding them accountable, the media instead reported how nimble those campaigns were at evading accountability.

It’s true that the Internet has democratized the watchdog role; the crowd online is buzzing about the accuracy of political ads and the sources of their funding.  But the disposition of people to segregate into like-minded polarized tribes – to speak and listen only to themselves – makes it easy to inhabit an information bubble where everything reinforces what they already believe.

The origin of the Occupy movement is a Vancouver-based anti-consumerism magazine called ” target=”_hplink”>Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com