“The Most Expensive Election in History”

Presidential propaganda comes at a price

Matt Spengler
Oct 28, 2020 · 4 min read
Photo by Sahand Hoseini on Unsplash

While hundreds of thousands of Americans are out of work, the political campaigns for both presidential candidates are projected to surpass $10 billion in advertisements, over $3 billion more than the 2016 election. Money is spent on television and digital ads targeted to a specific audience in key states hoping to swing the election in the candidate’s favor. The ads range from accurate information about a candidate’s policies to attacks on the other candidate with false information, to flat out propaganda. You’ve almost certainly seen one of these ads and thought to yourself, “That is not true at all,” or you’ve been able to easily debunk a claim. But if you are part of the targeted audience, you’ll likely believe your candidate no matter what.

What do you think of when you hear the word propaganda? North Korea? Maybe posters plastered around the city of a president or a leader. Maybe newspapers in a foreign country emphasizing how bad another country is using fabricated events. Well, you yourself have been subjected to propaganda over the past weeks and months, we just call it by a different name — political campaigning.

Propaganda is defined as “the dissemination of information — facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies — to influence public opinion. The term is almost inherently linked with political persuasion. At its core, that is essentially what a political ad is — attempts to influence a targeted voter and convince them that you deserve their vote and not your opponent, whether your information is factually correct or not. If you are convincing enough, your voters won’t bother to check if you are telling the truth.

The past few months have been flooded with ads promoting both candidates, but particularly flaunting Donald Trump’s “agenda” and attacking Joe Biden. Ads that have been filled with snippets from Biden’s speeches, such as him emphatically saying, “I am going to raise taxes!” The ads are clipped in a way to take the phrase solely by itself without any context from his actual tax policies. Anyone who has researched Biden’s position knows that claim isn’t entirely true, but it is innocent campaigning that falls within the rules and regulations of political advertising.

If you have been subjected to some of these ads, you may have made the distinction that online ads are filled with more false information and inaccuracies than television ads. Twitter has banned political ads on its platform, but Facebook has taken the opposite stance. The Trump Make America Great Again Committee has spent close to $87 million on Facebook ads this campaign, and that is not a coincidence. The ads are tailored to the audience who uses Facebook and there is less regulation for online ads than there are for television ads, giving the committee more freedom to shape its message.

Mark Zuckerberg has allowed his platform to run political ads that may contain any number of falsehoods but changed his decision where Facebook is now stopping political advertisements on their site a week before election day and indefinitely after to quell disinformation about the outcome of the election. However, it is not removing any existing ads. Obviously, that does nothing to curb the other forms of rampant disinformation on the platform.

AARP put out a warning on its website to be wary of false political ads targeted towards the 50 and above demographic — a large segment of Facebook users. One paragraph in their article states, “‘The vast majority of political ads are microtargeted,’ making it easier to identify people with messages to which they are especially susceptible, Edelson explains. That can also make it easier to spread misinformation, because false claims may not be immediately visible to others who could debunk them.”

Support for political advertising differs among countries. European countries such as Germany, Denmark, and Norway that already have tight regulations have low support for political advertising on television. In the United States, with many fewer restrictions, especially in the digital realm, 68% of respondents support political advertising, and 83% of right-leaning respondents support it. There is also a difference between political parties on what to do with political ads that make false claims. 67% of left-leaning respondents say that platforms should block political ads that contain false information while only 34% of right-leaning believe they should be blocked.

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020

The problem with the above percentages is not necessarily whether or not people believe false information should be allowed, it is that those people are going to believe that the false information is true. Combine the lack of strong regulation for digital political ads with low levels of media literacy, and it creates the perfect brew for propaganda and disinformation to exist. You might be confident in your abilities to spot propaganda, but millions of others are ignorant of the fact that they see it every day and aren’t immune to it. It is the common feeling of, “That happens over there, not here.” But it does happen here, and it costs billions of dollars.

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Matt Spengler

Written by

Writer on current affairs & politics. I have a Masters degree in government from Johns Hopkins.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

Matt Spengler

Written by

Writer on current affairs & politics. I have a Masters degree in government from Johns Hopkins.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

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