Tuesday, 21 November 2017

How Snail Mail was the Original Fake News

How Snail Mail was the Original Fake News

In 2014 I worked on the digital team for Alison Grimes’ Senate Campaign in Kentucky. Our opposition: Mitch McConnell.

Mitch was and still is a brilliant politician – at least to pre-2016 standards. He can raise a boat load of money, do absolutely nothing productive, and win landslide reelections. It’s quite stunning really. Lately, he’s been catching some flack from badass women. But with his wife heading the Department of Transportation, I think he’ll be fine.

Mitch McConnell’s Election Violation Notice

During that Senate campaign I watched McConnell’s campaign machine continuously lie. I experienced police officers removing Grime’s staffers from an event. I watched a police officer even get physical with a staffer once. But at the very end of the campaign, me and the rest of Kentucky experienced McConnell’s dirtiest tactic yet.

With only a few days before the 2014 Midterm elections, McConnell released this Award winning mail piece – which was designed to misinform the public. Sent out to Eastern Kentuckians with way-below-average access to the internet, the piece was aimed to suppress the vote in that part of the state.  Undoubtedly, it was designed to create doubt in readers’ minds about the legality of voting for Alison Grimes. It also claimed to be an official election violation notice. And it wasn’t obviously campaign literature either, as it was colored with the green hue of a government document.

mcconnellmailer

Ted Cruz’s Voter Report Card

This type of politicking happened in the 2016 primaries as well. Ted Cruz sent out ‘report cards’ to voters, giving them F’s for their involvement, and assured additional mail and warnings if they did not caucus for Ted Cruz. Some people called it “fraudulent”, I’ll go ahead and call it undemocratic – though Cruz refused to apologize for confusing voters.

ted-cruz-shaming-campaign-3

To make matters worse, on the day of the Iowa Caucus, Ted Cruz put out a press release claiming Ben Carson had dropped out of the race, and to begin caucusing for Cruz. This caused Donald Trump to go nuts per usual. Like the McConnell piece, it was released with too little time to change anything and with no way of measuring the affects it may have had.

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Tricking Voters is Easy

In the 2016 election, the fake-government-document-strategy extended its reach outside of the political realm. Scammers used fake voter registration forms to steal identities in Virginia on the backs of voter registration drives in the state. The forms asked for voters’ names, addresses and social security numbers. Yikes.

The trickiest part of the situation is the ease at which designers can match the branding of a government document. Designers find the right color of green or yellow. They use the right fonts and envelopes. And they use authoritative language that sounds official. It is without a doubt a sticky situation.

Sadly though, I’ve never heard of any campaign being punished for these tactics. And with how fake news spread in 2016, I don’t see mail as anybody’s focus.

Does it work?

Of course it does. Unlike fake news on the web, misinformation via mail isn’t as easily fact checked. It probably isn’t fact checked at all when disguised as a government document.

Additionally, nothing can be changed about a piece of paper that someone is holding in their hands. It can no longer be edited or “taken down”. Certainly campaigns could file charges, but that would be useless if the controversial pieces are sent out within days of the election. By the time the courts handled the case, all the votes would have been cast.

Lastly, the backlash from a printed piece comes slow, and struggles to acquire critical velocity. Online, things can go viral quickly. Offline, not so much. It would actually require someone taking a picture of the piece, sharing it on their own social media accounts, and hoping their network have the social capital to spread it. Not an easy thing to do for someone in Eastern Kentucky or rural Iowa.

As campaigns continue to focus on carefully crafted digital content, I predict fake government documents will increasingly make their ways into our elections. With no one watching out, no approval process, and no demonstrable punishments, there is no reason why it wouldn’t.

Ryan Black is a documentary filmmaker, political consultant, and digital media professional who writes about Progressive Politics.

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