by Juliana, Student Advocacy Fellow at Emory & Henry College
Campaign attack advertisements are almost universally hated. How many times have we been watching television and suddenly a politician pops up to talk badly about their opponent and we just roll our eyes? They all use a bold, all-caps font to make their message seem more urgent. They all have actors and actresses pretending to be scared. They always end with the candidate coming forward to reassure us that we are safe with them, and only them.
It can be easy to take these advertisements to be just as truthful as they claim (especially for students and young people like those on my campus), but that is not always the case. Many of the features of the advertisements are twisting the truth, if not out-right lies (one may call them “fake news”).
Campaigns have several techniques to accomplish this. First, they can bring up voting records. Anytime bills are introduced, there are opportunities to slip in clauses that could be unrelated to the intent of the bill. So, it may seem that a candidate turned down what would have been helpful policy, but they may have noticed something not-so-great in the fine print. Of course, campaigns fail to mention this in their attack advertisements.
Another technique is to bring up exceptions to the rule. A candidate may support something that does good 99 percent of the time, but campaigns will exploit the one time that something went wrong. They make it appear as though every situation will be the same as the unfortunate one.
Campaigns also use extreme exaggeration to get their point across. They dig up small instances from the past that could be viewed as negative and make them seem overwhelming. It is easy to find mistakes candidates have made, because all humans make them. The advertisements decide for us what information is relevant without giving us the full story.
An example of a ridiculous attack advertisement comes to us from our very own Virginia republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie. His ad refers to a bill called HB 2000, which would ban the establishment of sanctuary cities. The ad states that the democratic gubernatorial candidate, Ralph Northam, cast the deciding vote that killed the bill, therefore making cities open to so-called dangerous illegal immigrants. The advertisement fails to mention that there aren’t even any sanctuary cities in Virginia or that Northam’s vote only momentarily killed the bill because another vote was called, and the bill passed. It was actually later vetoed by the governor. So not only does this attack advertisement twist the truth, it also creates a dangerous rhetoric against immigrants.
Gillespie says that he will protect women, but he doesn’t seem to want to protect them from xenophobia or provide them with the life-saving reproductive health care that is desperately needed across the state. And he claims to be for all Virginians?
Luckily, there is a way to combat advertisements like the ones Gillespie’s campaign is running: research. When we see attack advertisements, we can immediately go and fact-check them. We are lucky to be alive at a time where information is available and abundant. We can analyze what the campaigns are saying and see if they contain the whole story. From there we can determine what we may about that campaign. It is more important than ever to make sure you aren’t being fooled by candidates, but even more dire is the need for everyone to make an informed decision and exercise their right to vote.