2019年12月17日 星期二

On Politics Media Watch: Impeachment Ad Wars

Republicans are running ads about impeachment. Democrats are changing the subject.

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Nick Corasaniti, your host on Tuesdays for our coverage of all things media and messaging.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

With about 24 hours to go until the House is expected to vote on the impeachment of President Trump, the rhetoric in Washington has reached a fever pitch. Everything in politics today, it seems, is viewed through the lens of impeachment.

But in waging the war for public opinion, through millions of dollars in television and digital ads, the difference in tactics between Republicans and Democrats couldn’t be more stark.

For Republicans, it’s all about attacking Democratic House members, especially those in congressional districts Mr. Trump won in 2016, with the goal of making their impeachment votes as difficult as possible. Republicans have put more than $16.7 million toward this effort, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.

For Democrats, it’s all about maintaining the promises of the 2018 midterms: They point to bills Democrats are writing to lower the costs of health care and prescription drugs and raise wages. There’s nary a mention of impeachment. And they’ve spent just $5.4 million on these ads.


The contrasts in the messages, and in how they’ve been delivered, offer a preview of how impeachment and other issues will most likely play out in the 2020 election.

The Republicans

In most of the ads coming from Republican-allied super PACs and the Republican National Committee, impeachment is branded as a conspiracy led by progressive activists and leaders like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Those two freshman Democrats are vocal proponents of impeachment, though neither holds leadership positions on the House Judiciary or Intelligence committees. But they’re some of Mr. Trump’s favorite foils, and thus are visually prominent in the Republican advertisements. The ads also attack potentially vulnerable Democrats in their home districts.


In addition, the Republican ads argue that the inquiry has ground the already slow gears of Washington to a halt, and that Democrats aren’t working on other priorities like health care — though the House recently passed key spending measures and legislation to lower drug prices.

The Democrats

That terrain is where the Democrats have chosen to respond. House Majority Forward, a nonprofit group closely aligned with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has run $3.6 million worth of positive ads highlighting policy efforts by specific House Democrats.

Haley Stevens is “focused on Michigan jobs and workers.” Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania is “fighting back for the middle class.” Chris Pappas of New Hampshire is “taking care of service members.” Abby Finkenauer of Iowa is “standing up to drug and insurance companies.” And every member is supporting “bipartisan legislation to lower prescription drug costs.”


One of the biggest Democratic super PACs, Priorities USA, hasn’t advertised at all on impeachment. Its reasoning: the news reports and national conversations about the evidence for impeachment have been bad enough for Mr. Trump and Republicans.

“Voters are already hearing a lot on impeachment and the negative things that Trump did, and in every poll I’ve seen, it says that what he did in Ukraine was wrong,” said Josh Schwerin, a senior strategist at Priorities USA. “When you’re thinking about the 2020 vote, that matters a lot more than whether they support impeachment or not.”

Priorities USA is also focusing on messages around health care, drug costs and better wages. By the group’s count, it has outspent the Trump re-election campaign on Facebook by nearly $5 million in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

While the ad wars may shift after the impeachment vote, some of these broader messages are likely to stick around for months to come.

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Harmless parody, or serious warning?

On Friday, a video purporting to show a group of Michael Bloomberg’s supporters awkwardly dancing to the tune of “Moves Like Jagger” quickly went viral, and it’s already been viewed more than five million times on Twitter.

The Bloomberg campaign was … a little confused, declaring that the video and rhythmically challenged dancers had no connection to the campaign.

The video, it turned out, was a parody by the comedian Nick Ciarelli, but it even confused some journalists. While a harmless joke, it showed just how easy it is for content to be spread and amplified in the modern political arena — without anyone checking the source.

My colleague Davey Alba, who covers the world of disinformation for The New York Times, has been talking to presidential campaigns and digital operatives over the past month about how they plan to combat viral falsehoods in 2020. So, I talked to her:

Davey, does it look like campaigns are prepared to respond to disinformation in 2020?

As of right now, no, it doesn’t look very good. When I talked to dozens of campaign staffers, members of both political parties, and disinformation researchers for my piece, the resounding consensus was that almost no campaigns, including 2020 presidential campaigns, have proactive counter-disinformation teams. Even though disinformation is a much-discussed topic these days, campaigns seem not to have a grasp on what a solid plan to deal with disinformation should look like. Some teams even conflate the issue with cybersecurity.

What makes it hard for a campaign to deal with disinformation?

The huge political divide between Democrats and Republicans makes it especially tricky. Discussion about actual political falsehoods can turn into squabbling about which “side” someone is on. Then there’s the issue of how campaigns must weigh, for each cycle of disinformation about their candidate, whether to ignore a lie or figure out a way to debunk it without accidentally amplifying the lie.

As one of my sources, Joan Donovan, a research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, put it: “One way that media manipulators prolong attention to a disinformation campaign is by soliciting a reaction from the target. If Bloomberg had ignored this, what would have happened?” The dance video, as we know now, was co-opted by right-wing personalities and the hashtag #DropOutBloomberg trended on Twitter — then the Bloomberg campaign commented on it.

Parody videos aside, is there any hope for combating more serious disinformation?

There’s a huge effort underway by journalists, academic researchers, digital forensic groups and others to engage in responsible ways to respond to disinformation. If you think about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when it was the Wild West and everyone was scrambling to figure out when to write about something and not to write about something, and we did not yet know the extent of the foreign influence campaign waged by Russia, we’ve come a long way. The community is starting to cohere around best practices for responsible reporting.

On the other hand, disinformation is growing faster than ever. So while we’ve made progress, the public still has to remain on high alert for dubious pieces of information that go viral, and keep educating themselves on media literacy and common tactics used by bad actors.

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