Words hurt and can cause irreparable damage. Underlying the belief that all’s fair in love and war is the drive to crush an enemy or a rival who threatens our pursuit of happiness. However the actions taken at times to accomplish this can go beyond ethical and moral standards and the winners not only become viewed by others as dishonorable but can for long durations hurt the social and cultural institutions that legitimize a people.
Rhetoric and false assumptions aimed at gays and Muslims for example have led to lives wrongfully taken by over-reactive zealots who harbor ill-feelings towards these groups. Our long standing claim to justice has been severely wounded by this cultural cancer. In the American political domain similar excessive actions can threaten the very democracy many argue they stand for.
The heated debates and vicious vitriol aimed at others over the last two decades have polarized our country to a state that perhaps hasn’t existed since the Civil War era. Inflamed passions within us have been emotionally agitated by words from popular figures and with the aid that today’s media technology allows, these words reach the public with lightning speed and responses are swift and often go beyond the reality. Two important recent reports have revealed how the selective use or omission of words can intentionally manipulate people and as a consequence outcomes are altered to the detriment of a voting public that rely on their media information sources for the facts.
In a paper released this month by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes entitled Misinformation and the 2010 Elections: A Study of the U.S. Electorate, data indicates that many voters held and perhaps continue to hold views about political candidates and public policies that are erroneous on several levels. The study also shows that perpetrators of this misinformation are major media sources that voters frequently watch. Though not limited to one political view, the preponderance of misinformation appears to lie within more conservative organizations and groups than their liberal counterparts.
A NEW ERA IN POLITICAL AD FUNDING
As a result of the nullifying Supreme Court decision of Citizens United vs. FEC on the McCain-Feingold voting law, corporate money could now be spent on political advertising to persuade public opinion. With millions of dollars from this bottomless well now being spent in this market, the goal of the study following an inundation of TV, radio and print media ads in the last election cycle, “was to determine whether Americans perceived that the information in this new environment was reliable, or whether they perceived a high level of misinformation.” The key findings of the study dealt with four categories
- Perceptions of Misleading and False Information
- Evidence of Misinformation Among Voters
- Variations in Misinformation By Voting Behavior
- Variations in Misinformation by Exposure to News Sources.
The results were eye opening. Of those polled 91% said they had encountered misleading information at least sometimes or frequently.
On the issues:
– 88% of respondents polled wrongly thought that most economists estimated the stimulus legislation had only saved or created a few jobs or even caused job losses.
– 92% wrongly thought that more economists estimated that health reform (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) would increase the deficit or thought economists were evenly divided on the question.
– At the time the poll was conducted the jobless rates were still hovering just below 10% but the US Bureau of Economic Analysis had recently made its first estimate of growth in 2010’s third quarter and put it at 2.0%, yet 55% of those polled thought the economy was still getting worse.
– Only a slight majority, 54%, supports the clear evidence that most scientists think that climate change is occurring.
– 40% believed incorrectly that TARP was started under President Obama, not under President George W. Bush.
– Only 28% were aware that the auto bailout for Chrysler and GM occurred under George Bush and Barack Obama
– 60% falsely believed that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending large amounts of money it had raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates and attack Democratic candidates.
– 54% were unaware that the stimulus package had created tax cuts for many Americans.
– 86% wrongly thought their 2009 income taxes stayed the same or even went up
– 46% were unaware that President Obama had increased troop strength in Afghanistan
– Nearly half, 42% felt that Obama was not a U.S. citizens or were not sure whether or not he was.
DEMOCRATS VS. REPUBLICANS
Of these 11 issues those who said they voted Republican were wrong on eight of them. The remaining three that Democrats were wrong on was acknowledging there was no hard evidence that the U.S. Chamber was accepting foreign funds to help GOP candidates, that most congressional Democrats did not favor TARP and that Obama had not increased troop levels in Afghanistan.
Even more startling was the revelation that the most misinformed appear to be those who watched or read mainstream media news sources on a regular basis. They more they tuned in the more off they were on the facts concerning these 11 issues. At the top of the list were FOX NEWS viewers who followed events “almost every day”. It should be pointed out here too that “the effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it–though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.”
Along with these University of Maryland findings comes the results from Politi-facts conclusions that some of the biggest contributors of misinformation were those on the Right. According to their website Politi-facts is “a project of the St. Petersburg Times … [that] examine statements by members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington. [They] research their statements and then rate the accuracy on [a] Truth-O-Meter – True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True and False. The most ridiculous falsehoods get [their] lowest rating, Pants on Fire“.
LANGUAGE AS A GAME CHANGER
In their first ever traditional end-of-year retrospective the POLITI-FACT findings found the biggest political lie to be the misinformation about the health care reform pushed and passed by the Democrats as being perceived as a “government takeover of our health care system”; similar to European and Canadian models. The notion perhaps came from the wish of many liberal Democrats to emulate this “socialized medicine” practice for Americans but the legislation that ultimately became law was nothing anywhere near this.
The term “socialized medicine” was itself a concept expanded on by conservative semantics specialist Frank Luntz who encouraged GOP politicians and right wing pundits to refer to this legislation as a government take-over and substitute the term “public option” with “government option”. Luntz has interjected other terms in the political arena over the years to slant the perspective on policies as he did when he labeled the Estate Tax as the “Death Tax” during the Clinton administration, to raise the ugly specter of more government taxes for Americans.
In an interview back in December 2003 Luntz told NPR that “80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think.” When asked if he believed language could change a paradigm he said “I don’t believe it — I know it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I have seen how effective language attached to policies that are mainstream and delivered by people who are passionate and effective can change the course of history.
Consultants for Democrats would eventually employ this tactic by framing questions and responses that appealed to popular interests rather than coming across as draconian, politically correct and intrusive. Both the GOP and the Democrats have had great success with their use of language to persuade voters but at what costs? Luntz’s “death tax” moniker didn’t say we were all taxed after death. In fact the estate tax was aimed at less than 2% of the population whose wealth exceeded millions, sometimes billions of dollars. But many within this small segment of society were unable to garner sympathy from the general public until Luntz insisted that politicians and pundits start referring to the more “emotional” aspect of it; calling it a tax. The result is that the rich stayed richer and revenue used to fund the government became more of a burden to middle income working families.
Luntz’s projection that people react and respond more emotionally rather than intellectually has had dire consequences for our democracy. By enhancing or altering traditional meanings or intended views clever people in the media can intentionally or unintentionally convey information that hurts us as a society. Not only have we become more polarized as a people but we have allowed a small group of very powerful people to convince us that their good fortune is something we all share. The opposite is and always will be false.
FULFILLING GEORGE ORWELL’S VIEW OF THE FUTURE
In the classic perception of capitalism that all of us have an equal chance to attain fame and fortune if we just work hard many susceptible individuals are led to believe that the human obstacles of greed and age will never prevent this dream from being fulfilled. Not everyone can dictate what their income will be because we are no longer a small agrarian society where self-sufficiency is the norm.
We have for better or worse evolved into an economic system where we are dependent on others for basic goods and services and when demand exceeds supply only those who have cornered the means to increase their resources beyond their actual needs go unscathed, for the most part at least. The rest of us, especially the elderly and children will suffer because they lack the physical and mental capabilities of generating income that will help feed, clothe and house them.
The Orwellian use of words and now video images to effect thought patterns prevents a true democracy from expanding much beyond the consumer purchases we make. But even those choices are manipulated by clever marketers to make us we believe we need their products. Real choices are seldom made from skeptical and reasoned decisions based on reliable information.
We run the risk of believing our self-interests are being met by the actions of thought police and in so doing become what many clamor about when they speak of “losing their freedom”. By reacting emotionally instead of keeping an open mind we are allowing a handful of people to form a voting bloc within both parties that will always strive to elevate their status to the detriment of most others. Based on the findings of the University of Maryland study many may already be at this point.
For further insight on FOX’s abuse of journalism media see Roger Howell’s piece in the Washington Post, “Why don’t honest journalists take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?