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The Perils of Biased Communication: Lessons From an Election Campaign

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

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 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. 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.


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Submitted by Anonymous on
Given the right to free speech in the United States, which is particularly strong around the rights to political free speech, I think that it is probably wishful thinking to hope that political ads will become more truthful and informative. In fact, it would probably be a bad thing if either the government or broadcast stations became involved in deciding whether an ad was truthful because their own bias will play strongly into that decision. Perhaps a more profitable approach for those concerned about good government and the influence of negative, inaccurate, poll-driven advertising is educational campaigns to influence how people think about elections. Through most of the 20th Century, the League of Women's Voters conducted a very influential and constructive education program to teach people (initially women) how to think through the candidate selection process and to provide good resources about the candidates and issues. Now the political machines, I believe, have become more sophisticated and there are ways that candidates understand about getting around "issues-oriented" voters (through poll-driven campaigns and negative advertising). I think that public interest groups could come back with a response that gives voters a understanding of how to evaluate candidates in a more media oriented world.

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