Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Some years ago, when I worked as a police department civilian employee in South Dakota, the state launched an informative (Public Service Announcement) campaign ad called, “Don’t Jerk and Drive”. The problem is the same in South Dakota as it seems to be across the nation, in particular, people forget how to drive on ice and snow over the summer months. Being as far north as it is, ice and snow is a problem in South Dakota, so they wanted an ad campaign to remind people to maneuver slowly and avoid jerking the steering wheel. The ad they settled on was “Don’t Jerk and Drive”.
I sat in a high-level police meeting when a state representative stopped by to reveal to the command staff the new campaign. When he left, I listened to the people on the command staff complain about the campaign, how stupid it is, and how it’s possible that nobody in the development of this campaign didn’t see the double entendre. But the funny thing is that it wasn’t the advertisement that sounded dumb to me so much as it was the command staff.
Of COURSE they saw the double entendre. Of COURSE the ad was suggestive. Of COURSE people were going to laugh about it, and talk about it, and be shocked by it. That was the intention of the entire campaign. And it worked. Later, when the ad made national news and late-night talk shows, the command staff slapped each other on the back and congratulated themselves for seeing the direction this was going to go. I just listened, chuckling to myself. Yes, people were laughing at the ad campaign and talking about the double meaning, but…they were talking about it! The humor, the incredulous discussions, the jokes all furthered the very message the ad campaign wanted to promote. I’m guessing they got more free advertising from the campaign than the advertising they actually paid for. Personally, since the word spread so far and so wide, I would say that the ad campaign was highly successful.
As we approach the 2020 election, a big one for senator turnover and the presidency, there are campaigns hitting us from every direction, and every single campaign has a goal. This year I’ve been hearing more negative ads from groups that claim to be “unaffiliated with any candidate”, but with the goal of dissuading voters from voting for some specific person. I’ve not heard any yet, but there will be ads encouraging people to vote for or against proposed legislation or tax changes, and, of course, there will be ads from the candidates themselves.
I don’t like negative campaigning. It seems like modern politicians would rather talk about what their opponent will do, or what they stand for, instead of discussing what it is they themselves want to do and what they stand for. I can’t trust somebody telling me about another person. Well, let’s be real, we can’t trust what any politician says, but even less if they’re claiming “my opponent will” or has or wants. They don’t know what is in the mind and heart of their opponent. This is why if I hear a claim that somebody has done something that upsets me, I’ll verify it for myself through trusted news sources, or with a tool that was not available when I was younger, namely, video.
In a truly nefarious twist, though, we have Russia and other foreign agents working to interfere with the US elections (according to many reports by US intelligence agencies). These are even worse than our own politicians “sniping” at each other. For example, one technique they use is to flood social media with rumors and lies intended to do nothing but to create cross talk. They don’t even care how many people believe it; just sharing it sows the seeds of conspiratorial doubt into the minds of Americans causing the talk about the rumor to increase. What they want from this cross talk is to drive a wedge between Americans, breed racism and division, and weaken the very fabric of our society. Unfortunately, they’ve been all too successful in the past. Conspiracy groups like Qanon have arisen, bringing in money and propagating lies like Pizzagate, a rumor that was debunked two years ago and still coming back today.
Here’s how it works. Suppose I have a friend who reads one of these posts about child abuse by wealthy politicians. Having a kind heart, and recognizing that child abuse is real (yes, it is), my friend will become angry and re-post the meme out of concern for the issue, inadvertently spreading the false rumors of who is involved. I might comment on the post about how it has been debunked, and the political bias in the meme, but with the best of intentions to simply set the record straight, I will end up putting my friend on the defensive who then feels obligated to respond to me. Through this dialog, our friends will feel like getting involved to support either my friend or me, and now we’ve drawn more people into the discussion. As this really is a very sensitive topic, suddenly harsh feelings between all of us good friends begin to rise. The net result is that the rumor has been propagated, our friendships are weakened, and the political discourse has been shifted from actual news to the false rumors that the Russian trolls were hoping we would actually discuss.
Watch out for these baited hooks. Keep an eye on legitimate news sources, verify anything that sounds suspicious through legitimate sources, and keep your head. Don’t be distracted by fear; that is the greatest tool being used against us today.