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Experts discuss political attack ads and the 'malinformation' strategy that's at play

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RALEIGH, N.C. News — You can always tell the season. Christmas has its trees, Thanksgiving has its turkey, and what always feels like the longest season of all—elections have their ads.

In those ads, we’re often hit with so many things at once it’s hard to tell what to believe.

“I would say this is a common strategy in disinformation and political propaganda, that you have something that has a nugget of truth, and you take it out of context and you use it for ill intent. It’s what I refer to as a malinformation,” said Francesca Tripodi, assistant professor at UNC School of Information and Library Science.

So, what’s the goal? Political scientists agree voter suppression is at the top of the list.

“A lot of voters have already decided. They’re already voting or decided and so it is the ones who are less attentive to politics and could easily be turned off and might not even come out after they see the negative ads,” said Mac McCorkle, professor of the Practice at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“What this strategy has historically been used for is for persons who might support that candidate to think ugh I’m disgusted. I don’t even want to go to the polls at all,” said Tripodi.

Negative campaign ads are nothing new. But has the nation’s heightened division pushed the envelope? Some of those watching say yes.

A recent PAC ad against state senator Wiley Nickel is an example. Nickel is the democratic nominee for North Carolina’s 13th congressional district. An implied expletive in the ad was removed after it started airing on local television stations, including CBS 17.

Expletive or not, often the tone does not register with voters.

“It’s not really moving the dial. So, a lot of it is looking for that knock-out punch that given the torrent of ads might be hard for people to see,” said McCorkle who has worked for state and federal candidates in North Carolina as well as 28 other states.

“The party lines are so far removed from one another I would be hard pressed to say anyone is going to see some political ad and then think oh my goodness now I want to vote for someone on the other side of the political aisle,” Tripodi said.

What if the campaigns or PACS go against the norm and go all positive?

Well, that could backfire.

McCorkle said, “as a former strategist, your problem is you might say ‘well, they’re not effective because they’re cancelling each other out,’ well if you don’t do it well then they only hear from the other side. So, it’s sort of this arms race problem.”

After all, it is all in the name of racing to the finish line.



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