Misleading Political TV Ads Fill California’s ‘New Deserts’

If you’ve caught even a whiff of the Dodgers-Padres’ postseason playoff games on TV, you’ve almost certainly seen a political commercial. This is not unusual in the run-up to an election. In fact, there are fewer suggestions on the ballot than usual in California — but that doesn’t make figuring out how to vote any less confusing. This year, for example, there are two different proposals to bring gambling to the table.

Political advertising has already reached record spending this year. Even more troubling than the amounts of money being spent, however, is that information clutter and political polarization are making it harder than ever to separate fact from unsubstantiated claims or misinformation.

It is quite possible that some Californians get their information about the election proceedings and the candidates standing for election only from television advertising. And strong local news services that could counterbalance misleading advertising are disappearing from many communities in this state and across the country.

For this reason, it is critical that state and federal regulations governing political advertising are updated to account for loss of access to information, even as political agents become increasingly adept at honing misinformation tactics.

Meaningful participation in a democracy depends on informed citizens, but many voters cannot get the kind of news and information that would enable them to do so. Since 2004, California has lost 24% of its newspapers – and 14 California counties are essentially news deserts: places that have no local news or are severely understaffed for local news.

Currently, current state law generally only requires between two and eight seconds of disclosure as to who paid for the television or radio advertisement. If it’s an advocacy group with a harmless-sounding name (for example, Citizens for Sanity, which was behind an anti-immigrant ad during a Dodgers-Padres game), such revelations won’t mean much to you.

Currently, the Federal Election Commission requires only what is called a “disclaimer” for television advertising funded by political action committees, containing “the name of the political committee, corporation, work organization, individual or group who paid for the communication.” . But it could also require that the sources of the text, images, or footage used in the ad be made publicly available.

Knowing who is behind a PAC is vital, especially in a post-Citizens United world where huge sums of money pour into the campaign season from unknown sources. Finding donors is beyond the reach of ordinary people, so even asking for a link to a PAC website would be more than what voters have right now.

Electoral laws are difficult to change and extremely complicated. But voters are consumers, too, and there may be opportunities for the Federal Trade Commission to act.

In July 2021, after another election cycle set spending records, the California Fair Political Practices Commission recommended establishing a database of political ads, but such a database has not yet been established.

This database requirement could be a pathway for the Federal Communications Commission, which monitors the public airwaves. The FCC could require broadcasters to air a short message before each political advertisement to say the information hasn’t been verified by the network — like the health warnings that appear on tobacco and alcohol products. Aside from federal action, California regulators and legislators should consider how to make similar changes at the state level.

Rethinking political advertising is important for the future of elections. Democracy depends on the public making informed decisions. Polarization-driven misinformation flooding the airwaves will only get worse without reforms that give voters a chance.

Nikki Usher is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Diego. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by the Tribune Content Agency.

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