By Kirsti Kenneth and Pierce McManus
The 2020 presidential election is still more than 500 days away. But with more than two dozen notable candidates already in the running, campaign season is in full swing and each day brings a new wave of information about the crowd of contenders. However, not everything you hear, see or read should influence what you do in the voting booth. Alongside the policy statements and campaign promises, today’s political landscape is littered with disinformation and deceptive content intended to spread falsehoods and mislead the public. Think you’re equipped to sort out the fact-backed claims from the public relations stunts and propaganda? Well, you might just want to think again.
We all know that political campaigns utilize methods intended to persuade and provoke the public. The time-tested strategies of tightly scripted stump speeches and staged photo ops designed to stir our emotions and garner our support date back to the dawn of modern campaigning. Most of us know to think twice about the slick promises and heart-tugging moments campaigns trot out to win votes, but today’s candidates and other political players are experimenting with new methods to influence the online electorate.
Last month, right-wing internet provocateurs Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman published a fabricated sexual assault allegation against Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg on the blogging platform Medium. The accusation appeared under the name of a man who soon disavowed the claim. There’s also been an increase in apparent “local news” sites that are actually created by party activists. They run articles promoting certain candidates over others without disclosing the authors’ political connections to certain political action committees. And false quotes by President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidates continue to circulate on social media.
Many of these tactics cross the line to become propaganda: emotionally manipulative claims and disinformation designed to hijack voters’ thoughts and actions. And as you can see, it’s not just Russian bots that are to blame. Government and big business are scrambling to find solutions. Twitter is rolling out a new tool for reporting Tweets that are “misleading about voting.” The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have made permanent their task forces focusing on defending against foreign interference in elections, including propaganda and influence campaigns on social media.
But we continue to believe the most direct path to outsmarting propaganda’s manipulative messages lies in educating and empowering the public to spot problematic content and stop its destructive spread. As we voters begin to navigate a seemingly never-ending maze of campaign media and related online information, there are red flags we can all look for to sort politics from propaganda.
Propaganda simplifies the situation. Does the content cite only convenient or helpful facts while glossing over counter-arguments? Red flag. Propaganda exaggerates. Does the content present its candidate as perfect or nearly so? Red flag. Propaganda also uses our emotions against us, exploiting our weaknesses and deepest desires. Does the content you’re looking at make you feel afraid, and then conveniently promise a cure for that fear? Another red flag.
Most corrosively, propaganda seeks to divide us, setting up an “us” versus “them” scenario that broadens divisions between different people, groups and ideas.
Last month, a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, slurring her words garnered millions of views and shares online. The video, which was later proven to be a manipulated fake, was the perfect propaganda for a polarized age. It was shared by conservative politicians and party loyalists in effort to raise speculation about Pelosi’s fitness for leadership and to rally their base. Perhaps those who shared it were unaware at the time that the video was fraudulent. Perhaps they didn’t care. Or perhaps they expected their social networks of choice to police the content distributed via those platforms. (YouTube did eventually take the video down; copies are still available via Twitter and Facebook.) But as the presidential election fans the flames of disinformation, fakery and deception, pleading ignorance or waiting for algorithmic salvation isn’t going to cut it. If you think the country is divided now, imagine how fractured we may be in a year’s time if we don’t become a more media-literate electorate, primed to weed out destructive propaganda.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, an informed citizenry is vital for a free society to thrive. As we prepare for the 2020 presidential election, let’s all do our part to ensure that the information we consume and share is factually accurate. And then let’s put that knowledge into action at the voting booth.
Contributing to this column were Katharine Kosin, NewseumED museum educator and Barbara McCormack, vice president of education at the Freedom Forum Institute. Pierce McManus, NewseumED’s digital communications and outreach director, and Kirsti Kenneth, NewseumED’s curriculum developer, can be reached for media inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.