One of the key moments in Canadian political history is said to have occurred at a campaign stop in North Bay, Ontario, during the 1974 federal election campaign. A photo op of Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield tossing a football went badly awry when a particular shot captured the candidate awkwardly missing a catch – the picture was widely published, and Stanfield’s PCs lost the election to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals. At the time and ever since, commentators have cited the North Bay fumble as a crucial factor in deciding the outcome of the ’74 vote.
But how exactly one image influenced millions of citizens as they exercised their franchise is never quite explained. Similar gaffes have supposedly swayed the polls in numerous other historic races: Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960 (Nixon looked sweaty and unshaven in the televised debate); Ford vs. Carter in 1976 (Ford misspoke on the USSR’s dominance of Eastern Europe); and the Canadian Progressive Conservatives vs. Liberals in 1993 (a PC attack ad cruelly depicted Liberal leader Jean Chretien’s drooping facial features, which were caused by Bell’s palsy). In each instance, a single perception, conveyed through the media to an entire electorate, is blamed for a collective result. Is this blame really deserved, though?
The question is as relevant as ever in the present age of social networking, data sharing, Russian hacking, and fake news. Our online privacy and the accuracy of the messages we receive are important, but there is as yet no way to precisely quantify whether, or to what degree, threats to privacy and accuracy shape our political choices. After all, we still cast ballots in secret, motivated only by our individual consciences. The reasons why we pick one candidate over another might include a range of impressions – driven by anything from a dirty trick or an embarrassing mistake, to a powerful speech or a kissed baby, all the way through to a careful consideration of the policies the candidates espouse. Of course, democracy requires informed citizens, but the paradox is that mandating citizens to be informed via only mandated information is itself undemocratic.
What’s at issue here, certainly, is not electoral fraud or altered ballots, where the actual polling is somehow sabotaged. Instead, we are talking about a much broader and vaguer problem: the impact of rhetoric, in its modern formats of Facebook and Twitter and television, in persuading us what to think. This is why the recent lawsuit launched by the US Democratic Party against the Republicans and Russians for “stealing” the 2016 election will be hard to win: in principle, every eligible American voter might have to testify about his or her preference and how they arrived at it. Many of them were probably exposed to false stories about Hillary Clinton, or steered towards inflammatory ads about her, or otherwise told something outrageous by shady partisans, but it’s impossible to confirm that any of those directly changed an entire population’s worth of private opinions. Donald Trump and his team are in trouble for illicitly seeking foreign assistance in crafting their campaign; determining if or how their campaign worked should be beside the point.
While we are rightly wary of “media manipulation,” a bogey regularly invoked by social critics and political theorists for almost a hundred years, we ought to be careful about perceiving it as often as we do. You’ll remember that when Barack Obama won two consecutive presidential elections, pundits credited his campaign staff’s expert mobilizing of his base through those exciting new platforms of online social networking, like Myspace or Friendster or that other one, the one invented by that Harvard dropout kid. Now the same platforms are decried as dangerous skewers of public will, because the consequences of their purported use were so different in 2016 than 2012 or 2008. But in time we must confront the genuinely held convictions of the citizens who actually decide elections and referendums – naive or chauvinistic though they may be – rather than dismiss them as mere whims provoked by fake news, Facebook, or fumbled footballs.