As false info hits 'boiling point,' ads warn US voters

Ian Geoffrey TIMBERLAKE
·4 min read
A computer screen displays voter public service announcements in this illustration photo taken in Arlington, Virginia on October 12, 2020
A computer screen displays voter public service announcements in this illustration photo taken in Arlington, Virginia on October 12, 2020

Verify before you share. Falsehoods spread faster than facts.

This is part of the advice given in a series of fast-paced, colorful and straight-talking public service announcements that aim to arm voters against false information about this year's US presidential election, including efforts by Donald Trump to raise fears of a rigged vote.

Disinformation threatens to mislead voters and undermine confidence in the election -- the first presidential contest since 2016, which was marred by Russian interference.

The ad campaign, which its backers call a unique effort in key states including Florida and Pennsylvania, has been welcomed by voting activists.

"We wanted people to be skeptical and informed about information they're getting about voting so that it doesn't cost them their franchise and we make sure every vote, every voter counts," Alan Miller, founder of the non-profit News Literacy Project, told AFP.

His organization and the Open Mind Legacy Project, which produces educational television, are behind the four animated 30-second ads, in English and Spanish. They are running until election day -- November 3 -- across television and social media.

The struggle for truth "is a major challenge to our democracy," said Patrick Christmas, policy director at the non-partisan and non-profit Committee of Seventy, which is working on voter education in Pennsylvania.

"It seems to be reaching a boiling-over point in 2020 in this general election," he added.

One of the messages urges people to "be receptive to news that may challenge your assumptions." All end with an appeal to the individual viewer: "Voting depends on you. Democracy depends on us."

Another, without mentioning Trump, directly counters false claims about postal ballots.

Studies show voting by mail "is reliable and voter fraud is rare," the ad says.

- Focus on minorities -

In a May 28 tweet, Trump wrote: "MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY. WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR NATION."

The ads caution citizens against fake videos or efforts by "governments" and others "to trip us up" and prevent voting.

Miller and Alexander Heffner, the host of long-running PBS show "The Open Mind," said they are particularly targeting minority communities, which have suffered disproportionately in the pandemic and "tend to be the focus of a lot of voter suppression efforts."

Sindy Benavides knows the problem all too well.

She is CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which filed suit against Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott for ordering the removal of all but one ballot drop-off location per county.

Abbott's action has added to public confusion already caused by false information, said Benavides, whose volunteer network is registering and educating voters.

She called the ads "a great start" in raising awareness among Latinos who, for the most part, don't know they can vote by mail and are focused on "just trying to survive" the pandemic's economic pain.

"The message got through," she said.

Experts, however, are divided on whether the messages are effective.

The ads assume voters are rational and make decisions based on facts, when they instead interpret things based on their biases and world view, said Saif Shahin, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, DC.

"I gravely doubt if they would be successful at countering election misinformation or voter suppression," he said.

"People believe in stories."

- 'Threaten the process' -

The bigger challenge is politicians' use of traditional news media "as a sort of blowhorn" for misinformation, and this "is potentially likely to have a much bigger impact on the election," he added.

Ethan Porter, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said studies have found that news literacy campaigns work, and also that the type of direct appeal to individuals made by these ads can cause a change in behavior.

He views the ads as non-partisan, prompting people "to think as citizens."

The Committee of Seventy's Christmas, however, pointed to Pennsylvania, where he said the "noise" around mail-in votes "could threaten the process itself" after polls close on November 3 and many thousands of state ballots will still need counting.

That is why he welcomes the ad campaign's effort.

"But there's not much time before election day," he said.

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