Hyper Partisanship in the age of negative campaigning

At the beginning of the month, CNN announced its decision not to run an ad sponsored by the Trump campaign. The ad in question targets Joe Biden’s conduct with Ukraine as Vice President of the United States and attacks the reputations of various CNN personalities calling them “lap dogs.” The 30-second ad has been posted to Trump’s Twitter account. In the meantime, Biden, as well as other prominent Democrats, requested that Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other social media platforms take down the ad for spreading blatantly false information about Biden and his son’s involvement in dealings with Ukraine. Social media companies, however, have sent a clear message — they will do little to stop candidates from spreading misinformation in their 2020 campaign ads.


While it may be unusual for a television network to decline airing a political campaign ad, it is certainly not unheard of. In 2018, in anticipation of the midterm elections, various major channels, including Fox News, rejected a Trump ad characterizing immigrants as dangerous threats. Many people point to the incendiary political rhetoric that has characterized President Trump’s administration and their campaign techniques as the source of the shift to this aggressive form of campaigning. Trump is not the only one to blame though.


A study conducted by the Wesleyan Media Project, which monitors and analyzes televised campaign ads, “found that three-quarters of ads aired during the last presidential race appealed to anger.” Additionally, the study divides political advertisements into two categories: positive and negative. Positive ads appeal to human optimism and have been used with increasing frequency in the beauty and fashion industries as a way to draw in customers based on the positive aspects of a product. In terms of campaign ads, however, the use of positive ads has had a steady decline in the past several elections. A study shows that 53% of campaign ads aired in September 2016 were negative, compared to 48% during a comparable time frame in 2012. By drawing viewers’ focus exclusively to the negative aspects of one’s opponent, politicians are able to associate people’s negative feelings with a political opponent.


While the effectiveness of negative ads can hardly be disputed, their destructive nature begs the question of appropriateness in elections. The schism that can be seen between the two major political parties in the US and the volatile speech surrounding their opposing views has done nothing but divide families, friends and communities. Each side argues that the other party is to blame for the gridlocked government and negatively charged political sphere, but until each agrees to collaborate and work towards a more welcoming, efficient and open future, the situation will only continue to escalate. If the hyper-partisan backdrop of the current political atmosphere is any indication of the effects of the increase in negative ads on political discourse, then voters better buckle their seatbelts for a turbulent election season.

Photo: F. Mishevski

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