October 4, 2008

Of Bumper Stickers and Bald-Faced Lies

We live in a world increasingly saturated by advertising. In the political season, that can become a toxic mix of misinformation, exaggeration, and preconception. Like it or not, we all are influenced by appearances and suggestions, however inaccurate. We project as much as we acknowledge of reality.

Which leads me to the question of the influence of false claims in political advertising. Below is my comment on this from today's Boulder Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board topic:

Scientific American
reports a 2006 study by John Bullock of Yale University showing just how effective naked lies are in political advertising.

Bullock showed subjects the transcript of an ad falsely stating that John Roberts, then a Supreme Court nominee, had supported violence against abortion clinics. Then subjects were shown an undeniable refutation of the ad.

Fifty-six percent of Democrats disapproved of Roberts before seeing the ad, but the percentage jumped to 80 after seeing the false information.

After the ad was discredited, the percentage of Democrats against Roberts dropped--but only to 72 percent, so the unsupportive number was still much higher than before exposure to the ad.

Republican disapproval also rose after reading the ad transcript, but returned to the baseline after the ad was debunked. Thus, the lasting impact of such attacks depends on how subjects already see (or want to see) the person attacked.

Political ads are so instrumental in shaping voters' opinions nowadays that they must be more regulated. The FTC already ensures that ordinary ads don't make false claims.

So the federal government should require the FTC to pre-screen all political ads--positive and negative. In most cases, this fact-checking can be done online in a matter of minutes. If we try relying on the judicial system to sort it out after the fact (as the FTC does for non-political ads), elections could be over by the time cases are reviewed.

Ultimately, there's no reason consumers should be protected from disinformation any more than citizens should. Our democracy hangs in the balance.