Misleading Political TV Ads Fill California’s ‘Information Deserts’

If you’ve watched even a little bit of the Dodgers-Padres playoff games on TV, you’ve almost certainly seen a political ad. This is nothing unusual in the run up to an election. In fact, there are fewer proposals on the ballot than usual in California — but that doesn’t make it any less confusing to figure out how to vote. This year, for example, there are two different proposals to expand the game on the table.

Political advertising has already reached record spending levels this year. But what’s even more troubling than the amount of money being spent is that the mess of information and political polarization make it harder than ever to distinguish between facts and unsubstantiated claims or misinformation.

It’s quite possible that some Californians only get their information about ballot metrics and election candidates from television ads. And strong local news operations that could provide a counterweight to misleading ads are disappearing from many communities in this state and across the country.

That’s why it’s crucial that state and federal regulations on political advertising be updated to account for the loss of access to information, even as political operatives become more adept at fine-tuning misinformation tactics. .

Meaningful participation in a democracy depends on informed citizens, but many voters cannot get the kind of news and information that would enable them to do so. Since 2004, California has lost 24% of its newspapers — and 14 California counties are essentially news deserts: places that don’t have local news or are severely under-resourced for local news.

Currently, all current state law generally requires is a two- to eight-second disclosure about who paid for television or radio advertising. If it’s an advocacy group with an innocuous-sounding name (for example, Citizens for Sanity, which ran an anti-immigrant ad during a Dodgers-Padres game), such revelations won’t tell you much.

Currently, all the Federal Election Commission requires for television ads funded by political action committees is what it calls a “disclaimer” with “the name of the political committee, corporation, union, individual or group who paid for the communication”. But it could also require that the sources of the text, images or footage used in the ad be made available to the public.

Knowing who is behind a PAC is essential, especially in a post-Citizens United world, where huge sums of money flood campaign seasons from undisclosed sources. Donor tracing is beyond the ability of the average citizen, so even requiring a link to a PAC’s website would be more than voters have now.

Election laws are difficult to change and extremely complicated. But voters are also consumers, and the Federal Trade Commission may have means to act.

In July 2021, after a new election cycle set spending records, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission recommended creating a database of political ads, but such a database has yet to be implemented. been created.

This database requirement could be a gateway for the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the public airwaves. The FCC could require broadcasters to run a brief message before any political advertising to indicate that the information has not been verified by the network, such as health warnings that appear on tobacco and alcohol products. Failing federal action, California regulators and lawmakers should consider how to make similar changes at the state level.

Rethinking political advertising is important for the future of elections. Democracy depends on the public making informed decisions. The polarization-driven misinformation flooding the airwaves will only get worse without reforms that give voters a fighting chance.

Nikki Usher is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by content agency Tribune.

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