Misinformation & Manipulation in American Politics

This is the first post for 2020 edition of the Living Room Candidate blog.

For the past 70 years, political advertising on television has sold the strengths of candidates by extolling their leadership virtues and also warning about the dangers of their opponents. Advertisements walk the line between publicity and propaganda, misrepresentation and misinformation. Because television broadcasters use airwaves categorized as public to disseminate their programming, they are required to follow certain Federal Communication Commission (FCC) requirements about programming content, and this applies to political advertising. FCC rules mandate that broadcasters make available equal time at equal rates to all candidates running for federal offices. Since political advertising is protected by the First Amendment, broadcasters must air these advertisements, even if filled with distortion and lies, as long as the campaign pays the designated rate.

At times, when campaigns have advanced misinformation, public outcry has pressured them to pull controversial advertisements. An example of this is from the infamous 1964 “Daisy Ad.” Produced by Lyndon Johnson’s campaign, the TV spot showed a young girl picking flowers before fading to a countdown to a nuclear blast. The 60-second advertisement concluded with a mushroom cloud and a voiceover that warned of the dangers of extremism, an attack on Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater even thought his name was never directly mentioned. The advertisement only aired once, before outrage at the manipulative message pushed the Democratic Party to pull it from circulation.

Today, private companies like Facebook and Twitter have the authority to institute rules for communicating through their mediums, which they have introduced for the 2020 election. But, the Internet allows for misinformation and doctored videos to travel quickly. Efforts by foreign countries, notably Russia and China, to interfere in American elections hinge on waging disinformation to stir discord and disillusionment with democratic institutions.

This blog post aims to give readers tools to detect manipulated videos, so that they can become better media consumers and more informed voters. Advancing misinformation for partisan purposes is not new. In fact, the battle over “fake news” consumed the founding generation. Their solution was not censorship, however. It was guaranteeing freedom of speech and expanding access to education.

Here are two examples of manipulated videos from the Trump campaign:

Over the course of his presidency, Donald Trump has courted controversy for his frequent promotion of misinformation and conspiracy theories through his social media feeds and political advertising. Video distortion plays a key role in his attack advertisements against Joe Biden.

The Trump campaign’s most popular video about Joe Biden and China is filled with video manipulations. It has 21.5 million views on YouTube.

A manipulated video of Joe Biden sleeping during an interview was tweeted out by White House social media director Dan Scavino. In a blatant distortion of images, this advertisement depicts Joe Biden as hiding out in his basement in Delaware rather than campaigning for president.

Here is an example of a manipulated video from the Biden Campaign:

In a recent critique of President Trump’s social security plan, the Biden campaign “attacked a plan that doesn’t exist,” according to Fact Check at the Washington Post.

Read more in this discussion of manipulation in the Washington Post, and this Fact-Checker’s Guide to Manipulated Video.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell is associate professor of history and author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life and Consulting Curator for The Living Room Candidate.

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