Some years ago, I worked on a political campaign that broke an unwritten rule — a rule that barely exists today.
An inaccuracy was pointed out in one of our late-October television ads, and we briefly kept it on the air anyway. It had been a genuine mistake on our part: We incorrectly ascribed a tax surcharge to our opponent that wasn’t his doing, though he had publicly supported it, and predictably he howled. A reporter called; we discussed our options and decided to stand by the ad, error and all.
We knew it was wrong to do that — I knew it was wrong — but we let ourselves rationalize our better angels away the best we could. The spot was cycling out in three days anyway, we told ourselves, and pulling it down early risked moving us from offense to defense at a critical juncture in the race over a charge that was close enough in a horseshoes-and-hand-grenades kind of way. Besides, the spot had gotten so deeply under our opponent’s skin that he was veering off message. Keeping it up felt almost tactical.
In the old days, a campaign never would have done that — or gotten away with it. Adverse news coverage alone would have made the move a net negative, and television stations would have pulled the spot until a correction was made. Not anymore.
Many newsrooms have become seriously depleted in recent years, some local news outlets have vanished, and in an age of limitless digital distraction, fewer and fewer people follow the daily ins and outs of political races, so campaigns can get away with a lot. On top of that, cash-crunched TV and cable stations more and more will allow all but the most egregious false claims to remain on air. It’s not their problem is the attitude, and campaign consultants know it.
That’s what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg thinks, too. He said so directly while testifying before Congress in late October about online misinformation campaigns on his platform — it’s not our problem.
Zuckerberg pulled no punches. When New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked him whether Facebook would allow a candidate to run intentionally false ads against an opponent, he responded, “I think probably.” Facebook dug deeper in a follow-up statement: “In a democracy, people should decide what is credible, not tech companies. That’s why — like other internet platforms and broadcasters — we don’t fact check ads from politicians,” the company wrote.
I happen to agree with Zuckerberg on the point, though I fear the floodgate of coming disinformation he likely just opened through his testimony. Even in a less than fully educated world, we should always prefer that the public, rather than the government or a commercial enterprise, serve as the arbiter of truth. It’s a far less scary thought.
About the unwritten rule we broke in that campaign. It had nothing to do with the news media or even the public. The line we crossed was between the competing campaigns where one’s honor is at stake. You can spin turnips into gold during a campaign, the rule goes, but you don’t make things up.
I know. How quaint.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.