While we're advocating for the role of communication in governance it is important to sometimes point out when communication doesn't work, or doesn't work the way you want it to. Critical questions for campaigns in general are: Can communication change people's minds and the way they decide? Can communication have any adverse effects that would go against the objectives of the campaign?
The Annenberg Public Policy Center and their initiative FactCheck.org organized an event last week, which had US interest groups discussing their campaign advertising in this year's US midterm election. A recent Supreme Court decision allows unlimited corporate funding for independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. This was first enacted in the 2010 election campaign and led to a wave of political advertising by groups other than parties and candidates. This created a veritable cacophony of voices from all sides of the political spectrum and made one wonder about the usefulness of it all.
The experience of the advocacy groups at the "Cash Attack" event (three each from the Top 5 of liberal and conservative third party advertisers) was indeed mixed. There were warnings about the thinning line between advocacy and advertising and about the uncritical approach of US TV stations to political ads: In an environment of decreasing revenues, TV stations might not care so much whether an ad is factually correct as long as it is paid for. During this past election, campaign advertising was an ubiquitous source of information and may well have been the only source of information for some people. This makes accuracy and trustworthiness of ads and advertisers a critical issue. FactCheck.org is an organization concerned with the accuracy of political statements and did criticize many of the campaign ads for false statements. Both sides certainly interpreted facts to suit their message. If TV stations do not act as a gatekeeper but broadcast all ads that are paid for, this kind of election communication may first of all misinform and, furthermore, polarize. Both are serious problems when advertising or politically biased information becomes a basis for voters' decisions.
Another lesson about communication from that election was that campaigns may matter - but do not always successfully change people's minds and behaviors. Can campaigns change people's opinions or can they merely assert opinions? Can campaign messages convince people to vote for someone or something they would not have voted for otherwise? Both conservative and liberal advertisers reported that the public mood in the past election was strongly against the incumbent government and very hard to move from that position. Conservative advertisers only needed to ride that wave, whereas the liberals had little chance but to motivate their core electorate to actually go to the ballot on Election Day. The latter group insinuated that the public sentiment was so strong it was simply easier for citizens to be against the government than be for it, and that advertising could do little to change this.
These are lessons from a Western election, but they do carry over to any context in which campaigns are used. The lessons from the last US election show us that if campaigns are one of few information sources and if those campaigns are politically biased, misinformation and polarization are more likely outcomes than education. This illustrates the importance of an independent media system - independent both from political and economic pressures. A media system that is so dependent on advertising revenue that it has to place every ad that someone pays for becomes as much an instrument of interest groups as a media system that is directly influenced by political interests.
This particular election also shows us that it is incredibly difficult to change the public mood. A functioning public sphere would allow for an unrestricted flow of (accurate) information and conversation, allowing people to form opinions on a sound and fair basis. That's an ideal, certainly. But the damage done by insufficient information, misinformation, and polarization is very hard to undo. And an uninformed, misinformed, and polarized citizenry is much easier duped and considerably less able to demand their due from the powers that be than is a strong public that knows what it wants and why.
- United States
- The World Region
- Service Employees International Union
- Polarization. Midterm Elections
- Negative Campaigning
- National Republican Congressional Commmittee
- Ken Winneg
- Election Campaigns
- Crossroads GPS
- Kathleen Hall Jamieson
- Cash Attack
- Campaign Advertising
- California Labor Federation
- Biased Communication
- Annenberg Public Policy Center
- American Crossroads
- American Action Network