Campaigns of deception: Does deceit govern the 2012 presidential election?

During the Town Hall debates last week, Governor Mitt Romney slammed President Barack Obama for his delayed response in calling last month’s attacks on a U.S. Consulate in Libya an act of terrorism, attacks which claimed the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens and three other Americans. The only problem? Romney’s statement was false.

Candy Crowley, the moderator of the Town Hall debate, was quick to correct Romney on the inaccuracy of his statement.

While this instance of deception was called out for what it was, such misinformation is all too common in the modern American political arena.

Take for instance a recent ad that ran in Florida throughout August, in which the Romney campaign attacked Obama for “gutting” work requirements for welfare. It was one of the Romney campaign’s most successful advertisements according to Ashley O’Connor, director of advertising for the Romney campaign. It was also a lie.

“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said during an ABC roundtable interview, defending the validity of the ad. Even though the accuracy of the ad was in doubt, the Romney campaign continued to run it for several more weeks.

Deception is bipartisan in nature. Priorities USA Action, a Political Action Commitee that supports Obama’s bid for re-election, ran an ad featuring a former steel plant worker whose wife died of stage four cancer when he no longer had health benefits from his job. The steel mill was shut down by Bain Capital. Yet according to FactCheckOrg, a nonpartisan group, the ad fails to mention that the death occurred five years after the closure of the steel mill.

Are political campaigns more deceitful than usual in this campaign, or is this type of campaigning business as usual?

According to Mike Artime, visiting assistant professor of political science at Whitworth University, deception in politics is common.

“I think it is probably a misconception that this is a new strategy,” Artime said. “So misleading and trying to portray your opponent in a negative light is something that’s been going on since the beginning of American politics.”

What makes today unique, Artime said, are the forms of new media.

“Falsehoods spread much further now than ever before,” Artime said, explaining how ambiguity is an effective strategy for deception. “We have made it beneficial for candidates to be as vague as possible, The more specific they are, the more ammunition they give to their opponents to attack them.”

Lies, especially in the arena of political discourse, are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Erica Salkin, assistant professor of communications at Whitworth University and scholar of Constitutional Law, explained why such deception is possible.

“When we look at the first amendment, one of its cores has been, and likely always will be, the protection of political speech,” Salkin said. “It’s part of the reason we created it, so that we could talk about our political lives, so that people could engage in political discussion without fear of retribution from their government.”

So, when an ad for a presidential candidate airs on television, it’s more likely to influence rather than inform. According to the Washington Post, more than $2 billion will be spent in advertising money between the presidential candidates.

How can citizens defend themselves against such misinformation? Independent organizations such as Politifact.org and FactCheck.org work to check the validity of candidate’s claims.

Lucas Thayer Staff Writer

Contact Lucas Thayer at lthayer12@my.whitworth.edu