How to Fight False Political Advertising
Widespread agreement isn’t something you’ll see much of between now and Election Day, but observers of every political stripe are unanimous in one expectation: that the 2012 presidential race will be the most costly and negative in history. The rise of the Super PAC in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision cast a nasty shadow over the Republican primaries. As the general election campaign heats up, all signs point to another rash of deceptive advertisements created by mega-funded groups that are nominally independent of the candidate receiving their no-holds-barred support.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson has a way to fight back.
The law requires television stations to air commercials produced by candidates for federal office (who must appear in them and personally state that they approve the message). But Super PAC ads are another story.
“Most people don’t know that television stations don’t have to take third-party ads,” says Jamieson, the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School. “And they don’t know that they have the right to correct them.”
That’s where FlackCheck.org comes in. A brainchild of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), which Jamieson directs, FlackCheck evaluates the claims in every third-party ad within 48 hours of its first airing. For ads that don’t pass the Pinocchio test, staffers swing into action.
“We post a video on the site that says: ‘These stations are airing this ad, and the fact-checkers have said it’s wrong for these reasons,’” Jamieson explains.
The next step is up to you. Punch your email address into FlackCheck.org, and the site will send you a weekly newsletter rounding up the third-party bunk. If your local station is among those airing it, click on a button to email the station’s general manager a request that the ad be taken down or corrected.
“When the station owners live in the community, they’re really subject to the norms of the community,” Jamieson says. “We’re trying to contact everyone in the corporate groups, as well as the people at the local level to say to both sets of people: ‘Look, there are real community norms here, [and] we’re trying to express a community norm, which is that we should not elect or defeat based on deception.
“We’re not arguing for the feds to regulate it,” she adds. “We’re trying to increase the likelihood that people know [stations] have the right [to edit ads for accuracy], and increase the likelihood that they’ll act on it.”
FlackCheck.org launched in February. By the six-month mark it had facilitated more than 24,000 contacts with nearly 1,000 stations. Because conversations between television stations and advertisers are private, there is no definitive way to measure the impact of all those emails, but some ads have indeed been corrected.
“We’ve worked very hard at FactCheck.org to try to help journalists” correct lies, Jamieson says, referring to the APPC’s eight-year-old, non-partisan project to reduce deception in American politics. “But the deception still gets through, because there are people who watch the programming but don’t watch the news.”
To the question of whether there are simply too many fresh falsehoods in every new ad to police in this manner, Jamieson answers no.
“People think every ad has a new deception,” she says. “Not at the presidential level. They standardize their message, and they just run repeatedly, confident that they’ll override the fact-checking.”
She hopes FlackCheck will make it harder for them to pull that off.
“It’s not controversial,” Jamieson says. “You know, nobody wants to stand up and say, ‘I want my candidate to be elected on deception.’”
She adds, “We don’t necessarily think we’re going to change votes. We think we’re going to make it more likely that campaigning forecasts governance. And that’s an important function for campaigning in a democracy." —T.P.
Sept|Oct 2012 Contents
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Illustration by Rich Lillash
The Futures Account
Health Care Reform: The Next Chapter
Arab Power After the Spring
How to Fight False Political Advertising