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Debatable Evidence

Media manipulation and the American election

Background

During the 2016 American presidential election, the public struggled to disentangle fact from fiction as political (dis)information spread rapidly online. With the United States gearing up for the next presidential contest, it is critical for citizens to pay attention to how and why political messaging is presented and shared online in order to make an informed decision at the polls. As the Democratic primaries illustrate, this is a challenge all across the political spectrum.

 

In early 2020, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s short-lived campaign for the Democratic nomination came under scrutiny for the use of online tactics that blur the line between political promotion and information pollution. 

 

One notable example is a video released by the Bloomberg campaign on Instagram after the February 19th debate. It shows a clip of Bloomberg on the debate stage stating he is the “only one here, I think, that’s ever started a business,” followed by 20 seconds of silence as the other debaters fail to respond.

 

The video appears to show Bloomberg stunning his debate competitors into an extended silence, broken only by a faint but audible soundtrack of crickets. But this misrepresents what actually happened — the long silence has been exaggerated by video editing. 

 

This deliberate manipulation of the facts stretches the boundaries of what is acceptable in political speech, says Claire Wardle, an expert in online disinformation. The Bloomberg campaign pushed back at criticisms, responding that the video was not meant to be taken at face value, but rather was intended to be “tongue in cheek” humour. Spokeswoman Galia Slayen points to the soundtrack of crickets as proof that they couldn’t have expected viewers to take the video seriously. 

 

As it turns out, whether or not people actually believe in the truth of the video may not be the point. Wardle explains

 

“Some people will actually be fooled by the faked video; others will recognize that it’s false and react with anger or attempts at correcting the record. Either way, the result is more eyes on the video and the broader campaign – a formula for monopolizing attention.”

 

In a crowded  information environment, getting and holding attention is the goal, a fact that can encourage exaggeration and misrepresentation or outright untruths. 

Activity

  • Some have compared the Bloomberg video to a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi that circulated online last year, where Pelosi’s speech had been slowed down to make it seem as if she was slurring her words. While this video wasn’t published by an official political campaign, it was shared by some people very close to those in public office. Most notably, President Trump’s lawyer and former mayor of New York,  Rudy Giuliani, shared the video in a tweet, asking “What is wrong with Nancy Pelosi?”

     

    Compare the Nancy Pelosi video to Bloomberg’s debate video and consider how the two examples of manipulated content are the same or different. 

Guiding Questions:

  • Online, the lines between truth, exaggeration and fiction aren’t always clear. How might misrepresenting a person or event — a little or a lot — affect the way the others perceive what happened? 
  • Who has the responsibility to minimize the damage caused by information pollution? Wardle argues that politicians have a special obligation not to spread false or misleading information. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Glossary

Primaries: The process for political parties in the United States to choose a candidate to represent their party in the presidential election. Every state and territory in the United States has the opportunity to vote for who they think should become a party’s official nominee. 

Primary Elections Explained (YouTube, 5:19)

Additional Reading

 

 

 

 

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