My colleagues and I played a role in the latest report from Nonprofit Vote. I’ve offered the following summary: “Political participation is highly unequal in the United States, and efforts to engage the lowest-income Americans are scattered and under-resourced. One highly promising strategy is to integrate nonpartisan voter registration and outreach into the activities of nonprofits that serve the poorest Americans. The new report from Nonprofit VOTE shows that this approach worked in 2012 and should be strengthened for 2014 and beyond.”
(This is the fifth in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. These posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from specific evaluations. This item is cross-posted from The Democracy Fund.)
Although low trust for Congress is widely known, it may be just as significant that “a dwindling majority (57%) [of Americans] say they have a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions” (Pew Research Center, 2007). That trend is consistent with a long and steady decline in generalized social trust, or trust in fellow citizens.
If most people trust their fellow citizens but not the government, they are open to populist forms of political reform, such as referenda, recall, and transparency laws. If most people trust the government but not the people, they may want to consolidate power in the hands of political leaders. But if they trust neither, any reform agenda has a difficult path, and restoring trust in fellow citizens emerges as an important precondition of reform.
When we asked a representative sample to make open-ended comments about today’s political advertising, many respondents blamed voters for deceptive rhetoric, often describing their fellow Americans in scathing terms. They said, for example:
- “Most people are sheep, the politicians know this and use propaganda to further [their] own ends. But not all of us are sheep, I try not to play into [their] bullshit.”
- “Allowing sheeple [people who act like sheep] to vote reduces elections to pure pandering.”
- “Deceptive advertising is reprehensible and ugly, and its popularity today reflects the American public’s inability or unwillingness to think critically and objectively.”
- “Most American people believe everything they see on TV and do not take the initiative to research what they are hearing to ensure its validity. This results in the wrong people being elected to offices- people who make our situation a lot worse instead of improving it.”
- “It’s a sad state of affairs that the political advertising used today is effective because of a largely ignorant electorate.”
- “The general public doesnt know the difference between propaganda and rhetoric and I find most people too lazy to to research topics that they dont understand or dont know what a law is, they just blindly trust the person to be telling the truth.”
- “The political ads are of low quality because their target audience is of low quality ….”
- “There will always be deception in Politics. How else are you going to get a mass amount of ignorant and uneducated people to follow you?”
We coded only 7 percent of all the open-ended responses as critiques of the American people, so we cannot conclude that this was a majority opinion. On the other hand, our question was very broad—about political advertising in general—and it is notable that 42 people took the opportunity to denounce their fellow citizens.
Similarly, in evaluating Face the Facts USA, John Gastil and Dave Brinker asked representative Americans to watch videos of online conversations, and asked “After watching [the video], do you feel that you would be more able to participate in a political conversation?” Most responses were favorable, but some expressed critical views of the people featured in the videos:
- “NO, it made me quite upset and I lost a little faith in humanity listening to all the right wingers”
- “I don’t think this will help any political discussions because as was evident in observing some of the chat, liberals and democrats are incapable of remaining calm and decent 100% of the time and right wingers are incapable 90% of the time. Check that fact!! 🙂 People are dug into their positions and there is a war coming, it’s just a matter of when, not if.”
In conjunction with survey data about declining social trust, these responses indicate a challenging situation.
However, as part of the same Face the Facts initiative, AmericaSPEAKS also convened citizens to deliberate in Google Hangouts. Compared to a control group—and compared to people who simply received one-way informative materials—citizens who were randomly chosen to deliberate were more likely to express faith in their fellow citizens as deliberators. Their attitude was measured by their agreement with these statements:
- “The first step in solving our common problems is to discuss them together.”
- “Even people who strongly disagree can make sound decisions if they sit down and talk.”
- “Everyday people from different parties can have civil, respectful conversations about politics.”
So it would appear that actually engaging other people in discussion makes people more favorable to deliberation. Most citizens do not have such experiences. Expanding the scale and prevalence of discussion would have benefits for nonpartisan political reform.
The previous entries in the series can be found below:
1 – Education voters in a Time of Political Polarization
2 – Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry
3 – How to Reach a Large Scale with High-Quality Messages
4 – Tell it Straight? The Advantages and Dangers of Parody
This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. Our posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from the specific evaluations. Join CIRCLE for an ongoing discussion of the posts using the hashtag #ChangeTheDialogue, as well as a live chat on Tuesday, June 25th at 2pm ET/1pm CT/11am PT.
Parody is powerful. Scholarly papers by Young Mie Kim and John Vishak, Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, Amy Becker, Michael Xenos, Xiaoxia Cao, and others have found that late-night comedy influences viewers’ political belief and attitudes. Presumably, parody works by motivating viewers to pay attention (when they might tune out less amusing material) and by provoking strong emotions, such as disdain for the person being parodied. In turn, those basic emotional framings strongly affect how people collect and interpret factual information. A parody can also spread “virally” if people enjoy it and choose to share it. The popularity of shows like the Colbert Report demonstrates the appeal of satire.
The challenge is that some people do not get the joke. For example, Flackcheck produced a parody video entitled “Could Lincoln be Elected Today?” that purported to be a television ad from the 1864 election. Its purpose was to teach viewers to shun deceptive advertising from real, modern campaigns.
Other experiments seem to suggest that these parodies were just as effective at informing viewers as more traditional fact check articles found at places like Factcheck.org.
However, we found that substantial numbers of people did not understand the parodic purpose of this video. Two-thirds (67.4%) of all respondents thought that it was reminiscent of real campaign ads shown today. That was the intention of the parody, and two-thirds “got” it-but the remaining one third did not.
Three quarters (76.2%) thought that the Lincoln video was deceptive in that it would have been unfair to compare President Lincoln to Benedict Arnold, as the video did. Again, that means that most of the respondents understood and agreed with the premise of the video. But about one quarter did not.
A few thought that Lincoln is overrated; they were pleased that the video would reduce his popularity, which they took to be its intent. About two percent of the respondents saw a partisan purpose to the video, e.g., “Well done video. An obviously very pro Obama video,” or “This video was obviously made by left wing nuts.”
Some other responses:
“It was disrespectful to our 16th President. Negative ads should be banned from all government elections”
“I think it was stupid and who ever used it, or if it was used, should never hold an office in this country and the public should have been outraged.”
“Anyone who believed this video was and is a traitor to the USA.”
Overall, we can conclude that most people understood the video, but there was substantial “leakage” in the form of people who missed its parodic intent, thought that it was fair to compare Lincoln to Benedict Arnold, were furious at it, or otherwise drew the wrong message from it.
Anyone working to educate the public about politics in a nonpartisan way faces a choice. Very straightforward messages may come across as boring or preachy and may not be viewed willingly, let alone shared. Funny messages spread further, but a significant proportion of the recipients miss the point–and they may be the very people who would most benefit from a deeper insight into politics and public affairs.
This post is cross-posted on the Democracy Fund blog. Stay tuned for more analysis in the upcoming weeks. The previous entries in the series can be accessed at:
During the 2012 campaign season, the Democracy Fund’s grantees experimented with a wide range of strategies to educate and engage the public. Some produced videos and other educational content to directly inform the views of voters. Others worked with journalists to improve the information that the public receives through local and national media. In all cases, CIRCLE’s evaluations found that the public’s polarization made it significantly more difficult for these efforts to achieve their goals; polarized individuals often resisted the messages and opportunities offered to them.
Americans perceive the nation as deeply divided along political lines. In February 2013, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, 76 percent of registered voters said that American politics had become more divisive lately and 74 percent believed that this trend was harmful. Academics disagree somewhat about the degree of polarization and whether it has become worse over time, but few doubt that political polarization can exacerbate fear and distrust, prevent people from understanding alternative perspectives and considering challenges to their own views, and reduce the chances of finding common ground.
The challenges of engaging polarized citizens emerged clearly in CIRCLE’s evaluations. For example, Flackcheck.org produced parody videos that taught viewers to reject deceptive campaign advertisements. In testing whether these videos were effective, we showed representative samples of Americans real campaign advertisements that we considered misleading. One example, “Obamaville,” produced by Rick Santorum’s campaign, displayed President Obama’s face alternating with that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a television screen in a post-apocalyptic setting:
More than 80% of Democrats but fewer than 20% of Republicans considered this video “invalid and very unfair.” Among the Republican viewers, some made comments like this:
“It does make him look like a threat…He is a threat to the United States and the well being of the people and welfare of our country…”
“Tells the truth about Obama”
“TO SHOW VERY CLEARLY WHAT OBAMA IS DOING AND TAKING THIS BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY! BELIEVE IN OBAMAVILLE”
We showed a different sample of respondents a MoveOn advertisement entitled “Tricky Mitt,” in which Mitt Romney’s image faded into Richard Nixon’s:
More than 70% of Republicans and less than 10% of Democrats considered that video “invalid and very unfair.” Some Democrats made critical comments about “Tricky Mitt” (e.g., “Accusatory, urges the viewer to associate guilt with Romney, not reflective of what I expect from politicians”), but many were positive about the video, saying things like this:
- “Entertaining and points out the crookedness of Romney”
- “Giving us information that we didn’t know about. All true”
- “I think it exposed the truth about Romney of what kind of person he really is.”
Essentially, people approved of ads that supported their own partisan position and criticized or invalidated ads that threatened their preexisting beliefs, although both ads we tested were deceptive.
We also evaluated Bloggingheads.TV videos, which showed pundits of opposite political persuasion taking part in civil discussions about controversial issues. We asked people who watched various videos a scale of questions that measured their openness to the other side. An example of a question in this scale was “I have revised my thinking on the issue.” Regardless of which video they watched, the strong partisans were always less open to deliberation.
Strongly polarized statements also emerged in many of the open-ended questions that CIRCLE asked of Democracy Fund grantees. For example, we asked a representative sample whether they ever shared political videos. Out of 195 respondents who chose to explain why they did so, 24% mentioned anti-Obama goals, often adding very strongly worded comments against the president. (“Obama confessing to being a Muslim”; “A black heavy set lady going on about Obama care, and that we should go ahead and work to pay for her insurance”; “Michelle Obama whispering to B.O., ‘all this over a flag!’”; “I come from a military family and I am extremely offended by the both of them. I have never seen a more un-American couple in the White House!”). Another 17% percent mentioned anti-Romney videos, often the Mother Jones video about the “47%.”
Some of the Democracy Fund grantees did not directly influence average citizens, but rather worked to support professionals in newspapers or broadcast stations. In general, these journalists, editors, and station managers seemed less prone to partisanship than average citizens. However, some reporters expressed skepticism about the neutrality of Flackcheck.org and wondered whether it had a partisan agenda. “I am suspicious of so-called non-partisan fact checkers,” one said. A broadcast station-manager, asked how he or she would react to being told that a given ad was misleading, said, “It would be difficult to determine the true nature of the intent [behind the criticism] or that the third party was indeed unbiased.”
These responses suggest that an atmosphere of polarization and distrust may create challenges even for organizations that work with nonpartisan professionals. Going forward, the Democracy Fund and its grantees may consider a range of possible strategies, such as:
Focusing at least some attention on youth and young adults, since young people tend to be less committed to partisan and ideological views and still open to and interested in alternatives.
Finding ways to get people of different ideological persuasions into sustained contact with each other, since simply knowing fellow citizens with different views makes it more difficult to stereotype and demonize them. Actually collaborating with diverse people on some kind of shared goal can be especially helpful.
- Experimenting with new messages and formats that educate polarized adults more effectively.
(cross-posted from www.democracyfund.org) Last year, the Democracy Fund made a series of inaugural grants during the 2012 election that experimented with different approaches to informing voters, exposing them to alternative points of view, and reducing the influence of deceptive political communications. CIRCLE was asked to evaluate these projects in order to learn more about their reach and influence. The evaluations were conducted by me and the rest of the CIRCLE team.
Two experiments involved disseminating videos online in order to change viewers’ responses to misleading or divisive political rhetoric:
- Flackcheck.org produced video parodies of deceptive campaign ads in order to immunize the public from the deceptions.
- Bloggingheads.tv produced videos featuring civil disagreement with the goal of increasing viewers’ respect for people with different points of view.
Two experiments involved convening selected citizens for some kind of discussion or interaction with peers:
- “Face the Facts” experimented with a variety of different methods for educating and engaging people about key facts, ranging from info-graphics to Google Hangouts. (This experiment was evaluated by Prof. John Gastil and Dave Brinker of Penn State University, on a subcontract from CIRCLE)
- The Healthy Democracy Fund’s “Citizens Initiative Reviews” asked small groups of citizens to make recommendations about pending ballot initiatives in Oregon and disseminated their recommendations to voters through the state’s official voter guide. (evaluated by John Gastil)
Three experiments involved helping or influencing professional journalists or media outlets to produce news that would serve the public better:
- Flackcheck’s “Stand by Your Ad” campaign urged broadcasters to reject deceptive campaign ads and encouraged local stations to run “ad watches”.
- The Columbia Journalism Review’s “Swing States Project” attempted to improve the quality of local media coverage of the election by commissioning local media critics to critique coverage.
- The Center for Public Integrity’s “Consider the Source” provided in-depth reporting on campaign finance issues.
In a series of blog posts over the coming weeks, we will share some of the findings that emerged from these evaluations. We will not focus on which particular interventions were effective, but rather on broad themes that are relevant for anyone who seeks to improve the quality of public engagement during a political campaign. The topics of our blog posts will be:
1. Educating Voters in a Time of Political Polarization
2. Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry
3. How to Reach a Large Scale with High-Quality Messages
4. Tell it Straight? The Advantages and Dangers of Parody
5. Educating the Public When People Don’t Trust Each Other
6. The Oregon Citizens Initiative Review
Stay tuned for the first of these six posts which will be coming soon. You can also join CIRCLE for an ongoing discussion of the posts using the hashtag #ChangeTheDialogue, as well as a live chat on Tuesday, June 25th at 2pm ET/1pm CT/11am PT.