I still recall an ad from about 50 years ago. Its message was simple: The young man on the rise today votes Republican. Think about it. As a generalization, the claim might have been true, though I doubt that there was evidence supporting it. But even if true, the suggestion that voting Republican led to job or life success was flimflam. Correlation is not causation. If there was a causal connection between voting Republican and career success, it most likely ran in the reverse direction. As people earned more, they may have become more likely to vote Republican, but voting Republican has never been a formula for success in life.
I call this ad toxic because not only does it play on human emotions and seek to exploit fallibilities of human cognition (here, the mistaken tendency to see causation in correlation) for political advantage, but also because it does so without providing any reason for accepting the ads argument. Political ads are often toxic in this way. Too often their toxicity is compounded by intentional misstatements of fact and opponents positions.
I was reminded of this ad when a football game I was watching was interrupted by an ad that was toxic in this way, and worse. The ad opens in a doctors office. An older woman is discussing her health care needs with a compassionate doctor. Costs are not a concern, she tells the doctor. She has Medicare.
Not so fast, the doctor says, or words to this effect. Democrats, he explains, may do away with some Medicare benefits she now enjoys. As the ad continues, the warning is amplified. One voice conveys the message first they defund the police, and now they are going after Medicare. Then, as the ad ends, another voice leaves the word LEFT hanging in the air.
The ad never hints at the Medicare benefits patients might lose, nor does it mention sources that might substantiate its claims. Needless to say, the ad fails to acknowledge that President Biden, along with most Democratic Party leaders, opposes defunding the police, and supports strengthening of Medicare.
It is instructive to unpack this ad to show how it works to persuade. It employs a tactic central to Trumps playbook: Attack the other where you yourself are vulnerable. Republicans suffered in the 1990s and periodically since then from ideas they floated about reining in Medicare costs. Perhaps for this reason, they have been hitting Democrats hard on Medicare from the time Obama took office, typically with claims that did not withstand the scrutiny of fact-checkers.
Yet they have opposed Democratic efforts to expand Medicare coverage, including recently floated Democratic proposals to reduce the Medicare eligibility age to 60 and to add dental, hearing, and eye care coverage. Moreover, their frequent opposition to increasing the funding or coverage of safety net programs and their professed concern for deficits are unlikely to instill in Medicare recipients confidence that Republicans have their backs.
With this potential vulnerability in mind, Republicans most likely sought several advantages from making Medicare a focus of their early 2022 election cycle attacks. First, they want Democrats to play defense when Medicares future is discussed. The goal is to have Democrats spend more time denying that they seek to limit Medicare and less time on their plans for bolstering Medicare and on calling out Republican opposition to them.
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The Republicans adroit use of the defund the police meme shows how effective this tactic can be. Democrats from Biden on down have repeatedly felt compelled to deny any interest in spending less on core police functions, while their reform proposals, including Bidens proposal to help localities add more police officers, have received little media attention. Evidently, Republicans hope that by making Medicare support an issue, they can, without providing convincing arguments or information, make themselves appear as the party that can be most trusted to protect Medicare benefits. They want viewers to infer that if the Republican Party were not the party more strongly supporting Medicare, Republicans would not be making Medicare coverage an issue.
Turning from the ads topic to its construction, what is first noticeable is that the doctor and the patient who are the ads protagonists were carefully selected for their likely appeal to most (white) viewers. The doctor appears caring and trustworthy, and most viewers will sympathize with the bind the originally optimistic patient may find herself in.
Probing further, we see additional psychological underpinnings of the ads design. Most obviously, it takes advantage of the human tendency to be wary of changes from the status quo, especially those that might make things worse. The latter fear has a name: loss aversion. Study after study has shown that most people will avoid potentially costly gambles, even when the odds are that taking a gamble will leave them better off. Moreover, when a plan includes losses that are certain, people may reject the plan even if the plans benefits outweigh what is lost.
Campaigns have hesitated to directly engage with an opponents false advertising because doing so reminds message recipients of the contested claim.
As noted, the ad does not say what coverage might be lost. This works to the sponsors advantage in two ways. First, it thwarts easy fact-checking and specific refutations of the ads claim. Second, it invites viewers to construct their own stories about what might be lost. These stories are likely to focus on what most concerns each viewer, allowing different stories for different people. The stories may reflect misinformation circulating on social media or incorporate information about ideas floated for restraining Medicare costs but never seriously considered. Regardless, once a message is embodied in a story, it becomes particularly hard to dislodge.
Finally, the ad leaves viewers with the message that undercutting Medicare is part of a leftist agenda that includes defunding the police. For those who have already been persuaded that Democrats want to defund the police, calling this to mind will make the suggestion of coverage cutbacks more credible. For all viewers, conveying this false message another time increases its salience and familiarity, which in turn increases the likelihood that the claim will appear credible.
The most obvious way to counter an ad like this one is to engage directly with it. There are several ways this can be done. The first is to contradict the ads claim by stating the Democratic Partys position on Medicare. The second is to unpack the persuasion techniques used in the ad, as I have tried to do, and to point out that the ad provides no evidence that supports its claims. The third is to reframe the ad as an unprincipled attempt to deceive, done for political gain. These approaches can individually or in combination be themes around which counter-messaging is organized.
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Campaigns have hesitated to directly engage with an opponents false advertising because doing so reminds message recipients of the contested claim. One concern is that engaging on an issue will make that issue more central than it otherwise would be. For example, Democrats may not wish to dwell on false Republican assertions that they seek to defund the police because even if they convince voters that defunding is not part of their agenda, debating the issue may make crime in general more of an issue, and Republicans tend to do better in elections where crime is a major voter concern. Where an opponent does not hold an issue advantage, as in the Medicare ad, explicit engagement may be avoided for another reasonfear that referencing the original message will reinforce it by making it more salient in memory.
The fear is not without foundation. Studies have shown that easy recall of information, made more likely by frequent exposure, gives an illusion of truthiness. However, the most recent research on countering fake news indicates that explicit refutations seldom if ever backfire. More often, they diminish belief in the fake news.
Another technique for countering toxic ads, which is particularly promising, is called pre-rebuttal. Pre-rebuttals involve anticipating an opponents arguments and refuting the as-yet-unmade arguments with reasons why they should not be believed. Doing this can have what is called an inoculation effect. The analogy to vaccines is apt because just as a vaccine induces resistance to a later-encountered pathogen, refuting an expected line of attack in advance increases resistance to the persuasive force of later-encountered messaging. Moreover, research extending back 70 years indicates that not every claim in a future attack need be refuted to make a pre-rebuttal effective. Like an inoculation, general resistance to the disease is created.
I have used a Republican ad as my example because it was seeing one that triggered my thoughts. This is no accident. Fact-checkers consistently find that messages attributed to Republicans contain more lies or are otherwise more egregiously misleading than the messages Democrats send. But Democratic operatives are equally familiar with the psychological literature on persuasion and are also willing to take advantage of innuendo, half-truths, and peoples cognitive biases in attempts to persuade.
Educating people on how politicians of both parties seek to manipulate their emotions and cognition and training people so that they are better able to recognize lies and exaggerations is a nonpartisan activity, except to the extent that one party is more willing to deceive than the other. There is thus a role here for nonpartisan foundations and other similarly tax-advantaged organizations.
By educating voters on how both parties invent or distort facts for political advantage, nonpartisan groups can take a step toward stabilizing what appears to be a threatened American democracy. It is fanciful to think that campaigns will cease to be built, in some significant measure, on lies and appeals to the less rational elements of human cognition, but to the extent that the persuasive value of deceitful messaging can be diminished by alerting people to signs of psychological manipulation and by effective counter-messaging, the country and its voters will be better off.