On a recent rainy day, I sat in the big leather chair in my study. With my MacBook on my lap, I watched a series of YouTube videos. Most had at least one ad that played before, and many videos had ads that played during their short program. It was pretty unbearable.
On that particular day, I was struck by the number of ads that supported the adoption of a graduated state income tax for Illinois. Dubbed the “Fair Tax” in the commercials, the ads showed happy citizens who were ecstatic that they were paying lower state taxes. Lower taxes seem like a good idea, but why would a state that is chronically short of cash lower its taxes? Something about the ads smelled like fish that was left out on the counter for too long.
It is well known that Illinoisians pay higher total state-imposed taxes than the vast majority of other states. Would the adoption of this new amendment really help our citizens? I decided to investigate. Currently, Illinoisians pay a flat state income tax of 4.95%. With the recently proposed amendment, lower-income individuals would pay less, but by how much? The rate for those making $10,000 to $99,999 would drop from 4.95 % to 4.90%. To put that into perspective, someone making $10,000 would only benefit by $5. However, families earning $250,000 would jump to a tax rate of 7.75%, an almost 3% increase.
Source on proposed tax rates can be found here: https://news.wttw.com/2020/09/15/what-voters-need-know-about-fair-tax-amendment
Technically, families making less than 100K a year would benefit from the new tax structure, but the actual benefit would be relatively small. The devil is in the details. This amendment also allows for future increases in taxes. This would mean even higher taxes on the rich, which could increase the already alarming exodus of these folks to more tax-friendly states. The law says it is OK to raise taxes, as long as it is done for all income groups. In other words, everyone would get a tax increase.
The amendment that allows for a small tax benefit today could translate into a tax increase in the future. I don’t think those people in the ads would be smiling if they had the complete picture. Illinois is famous for mismanaging its budget, and with the passing of this amendment, any shortfalls could be resolved by merely increasing everyone’s state income tax rate.
Presenting half-truths to manipulate the public seems to be the nature of political advertising.
I have already posted my concerns about cable news editorial shows and how their twisting of facts has helped create an ever more partisan and divided nation. However, political ads take bias to a new level. Many ads are now “attack ads.” They talk less about a candidate’s policies and more about their opponent’s flaws.
Lyndon Johnson used one of the first successful attack ads in his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. The iconic “Daisy” ad showed a little girl picking the petals off a daisy while the announcer counts down. When he reaches zero, the ad cuts to a nuclear bomb’s mushroom cloud. The implication being that Barry Goldwater was a warmonger who would lead us to utter destruction. It was an extremely controversial ad when it was released. However, it would be considered mild in today’s political climate.
Using selectively edited sound bites, modifying or adding additional sounds, and using unflattering or distorted photos of an opponent have become commonplace. Emphasizing an opponent’s errors without balancing them with their accomplishments is a given. All of these factors yield a distorted impression of the opponent to the voter. Most voters won’t investigate further.
The 1950s was the dawn of the computer age, and Ed Greenfield felt that he could exploit this new tool to modify human behavior. He called his idea “Project Macroscope,” and he enlisted academics from prestigious institutions from around the country. Greenfield and his team collected data from surveys and publicly available sources to create a database that could be statistically analyzed using a computer. His company, called Simulmatics, pitched the idea to the Kennedy presidential campaign and was contracted by them. Simulmatics guided the future president on addressing specific issues to voters, like his Catholicism (at the time, it was felt that this was a negative attribute). The impact of Simulmatics’s advice on the 1961 election remains unclear. However, Simulmatics claimed that they won Kennedy’s election, thus ensuring ever more complicated data collection and analysis in future elections.
More recently, the British firm Cambridge Analytica has been in the spotlight for their role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Cambridge Analytica used social media sites (including Facebook) to gather information on how vulnerable a particular person was to persuasion. They used a personality test developed by the University of Michigan that resided in the public domain. It was designed to give an OCEAN score, the acronym standing for, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. This score gave Cambridge Analytica knowledge on how persuadable someone was. That innocent-looking “what’s your personality” quiz that you may have taken in 2015 was a weaponized tool used to manipulate you. How so? Combining information from the personality test with other data could determine who could be persuaded to vote for a particular candidate. Once selected, that person could be bombarded with psychologically designed ads, articles, and other media that could move the voter away from one candidate and towards another. Do you recall seeing a lot of ads against Hillary Clinton calling her “Crooked Hillary?” If so, you may have been targeted by Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge likely impacted the outcomes of elections in many other countries before the U.S. presidential election. Also, Cambridge has been implicated in swaying the Brits to adopt Brexit.
Beyond being manipulated by political campaigns, political pacts, and influential individuals, foreign entities have used social media and advertising to influence voters with misinformation. It has been shown that Russia applied psychological techniques on various social media platforms to discredit Clinton in an effort to have her lose the 2016 election.
It is unclear how coordinated these efforts were, but it is clear that a multi-pronged attack against any candidate has a synergistic impact that supports offshoot organizations and ideas. QAnon comes to mind, a fringe right-wing conspiracy “group.” Some of their ideas include the belief that the Democrats (and others) are Satan-worshiping pedophilic sex traffickers and that Donald Trump is secretly working to defeat them. Other crackpot themes that they ascribe to include their belief that Michele Obama is a man in drag, and that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. is the epicenter for the above-mentioned sex trafficking ring. As crazy as this all sounds, the number of QAnon true believers has grown and even includes politicians.
Running a single successful attack ad can cost a presidential candidate a million dollars, but many feel that it is money well spent. However, misinformation spread by memes, “articles,” manipulated video clips, and “testimonials” are relatively inexpensive. They can be customized and targeted through the power of media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Politicians seem less interested in presenting the truth and more interested in manipulating the voter. Third parties can stir the flames further as they can exceed the almost non-existent ethical limits that a politician campaign will employ. A campaign may present facts falsely and misleadingly, but a third party can call the opponent a blood-drinking, pedophilic cannibal without expecting any reprisal.
The bottom line is that ads, memes, opinion pieces, and false articles do little to inform prospective voters. Their misinformation is in direct contradiction to a democratic process, as it denies the voter the accurate information that they need to make an informed decision. The only way to inoculate oneself from such misinformation is to avoid it. In the recent past, I advised you to stop watching cable news editorial shows. I am now strongly urging you to consider all ads, memes, and other political media you encounter in emails, social media, and YouTube as potentially false and misleading. If you are interested in voting for the next president, explore their actual record and vote based on that record and their platform. No candidate is perfect, but you need to weigh their accomplishments and their failures to understand who they are and what motivates them. Attack ads will cease to exist when they are shown to be ineffective. However, in 2020 that is not the case, so you need to neutralize them by not engaging in them.