The Medium is the Manipulation, Part 1: Misusing Campaign Ads to Fight Legal Battles

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #94 | By: Steve Piazza | September 14, 2023
Photo taken from: news.yahoo.com

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This series looks to explore the extent to which campaign ads and speeches as well as policy setting of political candidates employ deliberate strategies of disinformation and fallacy to not only discredit their political opponents but also add to the continued abusive miseducation of the U.S. populace and thus further increase the national divide. Campaign ads are not in and of themselves policy, but their message reflects a candidate’s or party’s policy of sorts, namely on how far it is willing to go to get what it wants.

Summary

What do Alvin Bragg, Jack Smith, Letitia James, and Fani Willis  all have in common? Looking at their résumés, they all are members of the justice system. More specifically, their current titles are Manhattan District Attorney, Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice, Attorney General of New York, and Fulton County District Attorney, respectively.

But if one only gets their information from a recent Donald Trump presidential campaign ad, they might be led to think that they are a “radical liberal New York prosecutor,” a prosecutor of “innocent Republican officials,” a “Socialist,” and “President Biden’s newest lackey,” also respectively. In fact, the ad refers to them as  “The Fraud Squad.”

It is the platform, or policy, of the Trump campaign, and by association, the Republican Party, that the use of deceptive tactics is an appropriate means to a partisan end and is justified regardless of the harm it may cause to individuals, not to mention the overall justice system.

Analysis

Campaign advertising is hardly something new to this country. Political commentary on candidate platforms and opponents has appeared in speeches, journalistic prose, and cartoons for over two hundred years.

Neither is the use of negative campaigning novel, as even presidential candidates throughout the years have been branded adulterer (e.g. Andrew Jackson), traitor (e.g. Abraham Lincoln), and popish stooge (e.g. Martin Van Buren). Even attacking their families was not off limits.

Jump to today and not much has changed, besides how the increased reach of advanced media and technology has made political messaging ubiquitous. Muckraking is still too often the norm, and the more egregious the better, with any real basis in reality considered counterproductive.

2024 promises much of the same, as the recent Fraud Squad ad epitomizes. This tight, 60-second spot starts out simply enough by momentarily discrediting Trump’s key opponent, but that promptly reveals itself to be nothing more than an obtrusive red herring. After only 11 seconds, the attention abruptly turns to the four other subjects being spotlighted here, people who are not even political opponents he’s competing against but existing public officials taking legal action against him.

In other words, Trump is attempting to use a campaign for the U.S presidency to counter his mounting legal troubles. The legal process is being alarmingly conflated with his ambition for office, when the two cannot be any more disparate.

What may itself seem harmless coming right out of the school of commercial advertising and checking many technique boxes, one cannot avoid questioning the ad’s deceptive intent:

  • Emotional response: The subjects, three out of four who happen to be African-American, are displayed while narrative tones designed to instill fear, skepticism, and hatred are audible.
  • Body language: None of the public servants’ are pictured standing square to the audience or even looking directly in the eye of the viewer, which can lead to a sense of mistrust.
  • Facts and statistics: The majority of the quotes come from highly biased sources (The Federalist, The Daily Mail, Washington Times), are taken out of context, and/or are just plain false.

The first two might be employed for their subtlety, and can be highly inflammatory. The last is clearly a blatant attempt to factually mislead . For example, the quote that’s heard about D.A. Bragg refusing to prosecute violent criminals is not even backed up by any source, and in fact is spoken over an entirely different quote about him releasing violent criminals while investigating Trump. In reality, his office promises to put more resources into fighting violent crime as per a memo on the Manhattan DA website.

This ad does not quite, though almost, employ subliminal advertising, which at one time was illegal. But showing one set of words and narrating another is no accident and is a powerful way to distract or confuse viewers into thinking something factual and substantive has been experienced.

Nonetheless, 90% of the ad is discrediting individuals who are doing their jobs upholding justice. It’s clear that this is about attempting to get people to lose faith in the justice system as the process plays out. Such misguided tactics become necessary when the intent is the indefensible rule of a majority by a desperate minority.

This gives credence to the argument that the former president is running again just so he can game the system to obtain the most votes and leave his legal problems behind. It conveys a concern more for his legal issues than the stability of the country. He’s also been accused of attempting to bring disorder and chaos into government institutions, and some will view this type of messaging as one more example where he is doing both.

Engagement Resources:

  • Contact the Election Protection Hotline if you think there’s disinformation in a political ad: https://866ourvote.org/
  • Legislation, like the proposed Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2018 to protect the public from information and propaganda, are needed.
  • The Algorithmic Transparency Institute brings people and groups together to combat misinformation.  You can find more information by clicking here.
  • Political speech is protected by the First Amendment, but who pays for the ads can be confusing. Media outlets are required to be transparent as to the funding behind them, so for more information on what must be filed with the government, you can visit the Federal Communication Commission’s Public Inspection Files site: https://publicfiles.fcc.gov/
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