Experts weigh in on political deception

Fact-checking websites help reveal the truth in political ads.

Before a full Cowles Auditorium last Friday, Dr. Kathleen Jamieson gave former President Abraham Lincoln a dose of modern politics.

“Should we indict Lincoln as a flip-flopper because of the Emancipation Proclamation?” she asked the audience. “Should we indict him as a tax-and-spend bureaucrat because he taxed in order to fund the Civil War?”

Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, speculated on attacks Lincoln may have faced in the 1864 election if today’s campaign tactics were available to his opponent, James McClellan.

The professor gave a presentation last week at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on “Deception and Distraction in the 2012 Presidential Campaign.”

She spoke about the prominence of misleading messages in today’s national and local political advertising. Along with many political fact-checking sites, Jamieson works to bring these distracting campaign tactics to light.

She explained campaigns often stray from addressing serious issues through exaggeration and ignoring facts.

“[We need to] raise understanding about those issues so that when we make the tough choices in government, the public doesn’t feel that they’ve been betrayed by the election process,” she said.

Jamieson explained the purpose of elections is not simply to decide an outcome, but to inform the public about the ensuing potential effects.

“That means that even if your preferred candidate doesn’t win, the election will still have worked because you’ll have a relatively accurate understanding of what the candidate who did win is going to do and why that person is going to do it.”

 

Checking the facts

Some of the most outlandish political ads do not come from candidate campaigns but from organizations affiliated with a party, like political action committees.

Recently, PolitiFact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning website that rates the accuracy of political statements, reported on a claim by the Government is Not God PAC.

The PAC ran a full-page newspaper ad in three swing states that featured President  Obama’s “true agenda.” In the ad were claims that Obama will “force doctors to assist homosexuals in buying surrogate babies” and will “force states to pay the college tuition of illegal immigrants’ children.”

Both claims in the ad received a “Pants on Fire” — “inaccurate” and “ridiculous” — rating on the website’s Truth-O-Meter.

The site also reported on a TV ad created by pro-Obama group Priorities USA Action.

The ad suggested that Mitt Romney’s investment practices at his company, Bain Capital, lead to the closing of a steel plant and eventually the death of a former worker’s wife after losing health insurance.

PolitiFact ruled the ad “False” due to no proof of the serious allegation.

 

Local level

One of Minnesota’s most heated congressional races has seen its share of accusations of deception.

In August, Democratic 6th District challenger Jim Graves released a statement accusing his opponent, U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, of “using falsehoods to distract voters from her record of reckless spending in Congress and her failure to represent the people of her district.”

The 30-second Bachmann ad Graves was referring to calls him “Big Spending Jim” and attacks him for supporting the stimulus and the $700 billion bailout.

After releasing a TV ad accusing Bachmann of ignoring workers affected by the Verso Paper Mill explosion, Graves came under heat in September after KTSP gave the ad a “D” in its “Truth Test.”

In response to the ad, the Bachmann campaign issued a statement saying, “Minnesotans deserve better than Jim Graves’ desperate attempt to ignore the facts for his own political gain.”

 

Deceit goes unnoticed

Brooks Jackson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and director of FactCheck.org — a site similar to PolitiFact — has noticed as political races get closer and the stakes get higher, campaigns resort to deceptive tactics.

Jackson said candidates often get away with presenting false or misleading information and face minimal consequence.

“Whatever price [candidates] pay for being called out for not being accurate in their claims is outweighed by the gains they make by fooling voters,” he said. “Being criticized by some journalist is a small price to pay if they can convince voters by twisting or fabricating facts.”

Jackson believes the easiest way to avoid being deceived by politicians is to consult fact-checking organizations after encountering questionable claims or ads.

“If you don’t want to be fooled — if you want to cast a vote that is based on actual facts — then you have to take a little effort to go beyond what you see in 30-second ads.”