Why Voters Readily Accept Misinformation

By Roy L Hales

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The Conservative party’s campaign video “The Interview” is essentially character assassination. The plot for this attack on Justin Trudeau’s competence was lifted from an old NDP attack ad (“Job Interview”) against the former leader of Manitoba’s Conservatives. The similarities between the two videos starts with their titles and finishes with their closing lines. The Conservative pr people added some new touches. Ignoring the fact Trudeau was a math teacher, the actors portray him as financially inept. They also make the ludicrous remark that the Prime Minister’s office is not an entry level job. (Trudeau was raised in a very political family, has been an MP since 2007 and Leader of the Liberal party since 2013.) Despite this, a fairly large number of Canadians appear to be deceived by this propaganda piece. Max Cameron from the department of political science at UBC explained why voters readily accept misinformation.

Negative Ads Work

Screen shot from the NDP original which, like the Conservative version at the top of this page, also uses four people in a boardroom to convey their message. also uses
Screen shot from the NDP original which, like the Conservative version at the top of this page, also uses four people in a boardroom to convey their message. also uses

“There’s a really great book by Stuart Soroka, a former graduate student of the department of political science at UBC, on negativity in politics (click here to access it). One of his thesis is we are primed by our evolutionary past to be attentive to alarm signals in the environment and watch for danger and threats. Negative ads tap into something very deep in our psychological make-up.  We want to know the good things that politicians offer us, but we are very wary of what can go wrong and negative ads inform us about what to worry about with respect to opponents,” said Cameron.

“There are people who even insist that negative ads are more informative than positive ads. Positive ads will often glow about the character and virtues of a leader, which may not be true or matter, whereas negative ads tell us the things we should know about opponents.

“Negative ads do work and that is why they are used”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fd7kp_zZA_8

Often Enough To Simply Throw the Mud

So what about ads like “The Interview,” which appear to be simply character assassination and have little factual basis? (Yes, Trudeau looks “cute.”)

“A lot of these ads stick even if it isn’t true. It’s often enough to simply throw the mud and have a little bit stick, even if people don’t entirely buy the message, or if the message is flagrantly untrue,” said Cameron.

Attack Adds Can Go Too Far

Political adds can go too far.

“I think the most notorious example of an ad that was inappropriate was an ad by the Conservatives against Jean Chrétien that showed him with his speech impediment looking very wierd on t.v. and then suggesting that wasn’t what you wanted as a Prime Minister. That really blew up in their faces and they pulled that ad almost immediately, because it didn’t do anything other than call attention to something that was completely irrelevant,” said Cameron.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at a press conference in 2012 by tourismemauricie.org via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)
Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at a press conference in 2012 by tourismemauricie.org via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

He added that negative ads can turn people off of politics. They also discourage people who do not want to be publicly defamed from running for office.

“It discourages women in particular, because they often do not like to be called names and dragged through the mud; knowing that this will be seen by their family, partners, children and so forth.”

“So I think we have to make some fine distinctions about what kind of negativity is appropriate and when it has gone to far.”

Campaigns Are Inherently Competitive

Can we have elections that are more substantive and less about spin?

“Part of the problem is that when we think about democracy we almost invariably think about elections. A big part of the substance of politics is the work that actually gets done in the legislature. We don’t see that work. We don’t see the work that gets done in caucus and committees. The work of democracy isn’t just elections it is also legislation and representation that goes on between elections,” said Cameron.

“We see question period, which is a kind of degradation of the parliamentary process. We see campaigns, which are inherently competitive. There are a lot of things I don’t like about campaigns, which aren’t so much a problem with democracy, as much as a feature of democracy.”

Michael Ignatieff’s 2011 Tour - Photo by Joan Smith Courtesy Michael Ignatiefff via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)
Michael Ignatieff’s 2011 Tour – Photo by Joan Smith Courtesy Michael Ignatiefff via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

“Campaigns are inherently competitive processes and everyone who goes into one knows their job is to win an election. To do that you have to cast yourself in the best possible light and your opponent in a negative light. Both can be equally effective in terms of winning support, so politicians do them.”

“The only way we can restrain that is by having an electorate that is educated and attuned to these issues, so it doesn’t respond to negative ads with fear, but judges them with discernment.”

Conservatives Have Mastered the Game

“The Conservatives have mastered the game, when it comes to characterizing their opponent. They are very good at trying to define their opponent in a way that blunts their capacity to compete,” said Cameron.

(In 2011) “They planted the seed of doubt about (Liberal Leader Michael) Ignatieff’s commitment to stay in the country and his commitment to the country. The Liberals do not seem to have been able to come up with an effective response to that.”

A Lot Of Anger In This Election

“Justin Trudeau seems to be doing a better job of addressing the idea that he’s not ready and I don’t think that the Conservatives have had a particularly clear or effective message against the NDP.  I mean the idea that he’s a career politician – what on earth is Stephen Harper? Politics is all he’s ever done,” said Cameron.

There is a lot of anger in this election.

“You don’t like negative ads, but what do you do with negativity in public? There is anger here, and to some degree the parties want to articulate that.”

“The Conservative voter is almost by definition an angry voter. It is someone who feels like the country has moved on and the country’s values are not something he or she can share. (Or maybe) They are uncomfortable with multiculturalism, uncomfortable with social changes around lifestyle changes, or not believing in Climate Change  and so on and so forth.”

“The NDP’s ads against the Conservatives definitely have an angrier underdone (than what they say about Trudeau). Is it not the job of the NDP to express the anger of the public that wants Harper out?”