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Want a Gut Check on a Political Ad? Talk to Your Coworkers


Note: This story is part of Your Vote Ohio, a political collaboration of WKSU, the Beacon Journal and other media in Ohio focused on reshaping politics and political coverage in Ohio this election year. 

Hillary Clinton and her PACs have reserved $91 million in TV ad buys in Ohio and six other swing states. Rob Portman just reserved $15 million worth of TV and on-line advertising for his senatorial battle against Ted Strickland. SoOhioansare pretty much guaranteed to be inundated with political ads from the summer through the fall.WKSU’sM.L.Schultzespoke with a political scientist about ways people can sort out the emotions and factual claims – and challenge their own biases.

Peeling back the layers of politicalads

Travis Ridout says coworkers may be the last bastion of respectful and varied perspectives on politics.
Travis Ridout says coworkers may be the last bastion of respectful and varied perspectives on politics.

  TravisRidout– the co-author of the “The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising” – says consumers should begin their examination of political ads with a simple question: Who paid for it?

“Is it coming from everyday citizens? Is it coming from a couple of billionaires with particular political motivations?

The next step, he says, it to reflect “on the emotions that ad is trying to make you feel.”

“If we peel back the scary images, the scary music, is there a message beyond, ‘You should be scared of this candidate?’ Is the ad making an important point about issue positions or issue priorities?”

And Ridout says the two are not mutually exclusive. “If a candidate keeps talking about crime, for instance, that may be because that candidate will actually pay a lot of attention on addressing that problems.”

Just thefacts

Oncethe imagery has been stripped away, the next step is checking the facts.

“Ultimately, it’s difficult to know whether claims being made in an ad are truthful or more likely how truthful they are.”

Ridout opts for the internet, and factcheck organizations such as factcheck.org or Politifact.

“I tend to look at those groups that are nonpartisan, backed by mainstream news organizations that are still dedicated to presenting both sides --  not ones that are affiliated with a particular ideology.”

Ads tracking you that are harder to track

Reporters checking those facts may be harder as “micro-targeting” takes over the political ad market.

“The campaigns are definitely doing more advertising on Facebook, … which is providing very, very targeted ads. So the campaign can say, for instance, ‘I want 10,000 impressions of my ad among women who show a concern with the environment.’ … It’s not just random that (those ads) appeared to you.”

And “we’re also going to see more advertising on TV that is targeted at individuals. So those who have Direct TV, for instance, they’re also working with campaigns to air particular ads that you might see, but that your neighbor might not see.”

Old school: Talk to people outside your social circle

ButRidoutsays one of the oldest forms of communication may be the best check on the newest forms of political ads.

“Take some time to talk with other people at work about what you’re seeing in the campaign.” He says that can provide a diverse point of view from people you respect.

“You always have to be careful, but there’s actually more politics talked about at work than people like to believe. In fact it’s the best venue for finding people who may not think like you. That’s where we run across those. It’s not in our neighborhoods. It’s not in our families. It’s at work.”

Ridout is also a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which studies the impact of political ads. He says for all the bad rap negative political ads have, some are more productive in terms of getting people to think about and research issues than the ads’ feel-good counterparts. 

About those political ads: Stop! Look! Don’t go crazy! You can’t stop political attack ads from invading your personal space. Millionaires and billionaires have made sure of that with court decisions and friends in Congress. 

But you can render them harmless – even make them useful. 

Follow these steps: 

  1. Political advertisers know when and how you’re vulnerable. When exposed to an attack ad, shut off your political persuasion and become keenly aware of the moment. What day is it? Time? What are you doing? Is this a station or show or web site that attracts specific incomes, or gender, or race, or age? They know. Do you? 

  1. Don’t listen for the message. Instead, dissect the production. Identify techniques likely to stir emotion and cause you to disregard logic. This is fantasy chaining, building on one gimmick after another to increase the chance of mind manipulation. Listen to the sounds, the tone of voice, look at the lighting, the way the images are played to suggest an admirable quality or to repulse. Are there patriotic or unpatriotic images? 

  1. Fact check. Watch the ad again, noting key phrases or claims. Check the internet for reliable journalistic sources that have examined the claims. See below for details. 

  1. Share your thoughts. Go to the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page www.facebook.com/yourvoteohio and leave your comments. There, you can watch an attack ad, go through the steps above and share thoughts with others. The page will be maintained by the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan civic engagement group working with Ohio news organizations this year to give voice to citizens in the election process. 

Who came up with the four steps?  
David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. In conversations with Ohio journalists, his organization has challenged Ohio media to help citizens identify a campaign process that works better. Find a model you like? Make a suggestion on the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page and media will explore it. 

Here’s how to fact-check the message 

  1. Ask who is responsible for the ad. If it’s a candidate, the ad will say so. If it’s a super PAC, you can find help on such sites as http://www.opensecrets.org/http://www.followthemoney.org/, the Sunlight Foundation’s http://politicaladsleuth.com/ and http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/

  1. Focus on substance. Explains Travis Ridout of http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/ “If we peel back the scary images, the scary music, all of those elements of the ad that are designed to make you feel a particular way, what is the actual message in that ad? Is there any message beyond, ‘You should be scared of this candidate?’” One way to take a look at the range of claims being made is to compare: https://politicaladarchive.org/

  1. Find good help. Political fact-checking is a cottage industry of its own. Some that have been doing it for a while are http://www.factcheck.org/ (They pay attention to more than just ads; debate and speech rundowns are available as well) and http://www.flackcheck.org/. Both are associated Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Another option: http://www.politifact.com/  

  1. Pay attention to who is paying attention to you – and how. There are people gathering detailed information about every American, hoping to influence votes and gain control of government. Because Ohio is a large swing state, we are a top target. News media don’t know when you’ve been micro-targeted for negative ads on your computers or in your mailbox. So…. 

  1. Take action: With a cell phone, take a photo or video of a negative internet ad or mailer and send it to: negativeads@yourvoteohio.org  Or you can do the same with a screenshot of your computer screen. The ads will be catalogued by The Ohio Media Project, a collaborative of major news organizations in Ohio, the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, and the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan civic engagement group. The effort is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

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