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A. Bulychev. On Some Aspects of the USE of the Mass Media for Negative Campaigning
The experience of the election campaigns conducted in Russia in recent years shows that the political parties and some candidates are actively trying to involve the mass media in carrying on a negative campaign against their opponents, particularly, if these opponents are high-ranking officials of the bodies of legislative or executive power. For this purpose they are effectively using the following motivations of the voters and the following specific features of media operation:
- the population in Russia, as in the majority of other countries, is always highly critical of the authorities;
- any kind of negative information about the authorities, their officials and, for that matter, about leaders of the opposition is more credible in the eyes of the voters than reports about successes;
- there is a certain «acceptance» of the savage and violent nature of attacks made by political parities against each other, as a result of which election campaigns are becoming increasingly harsh;
- the mass media are able to disseminate negative information in a very emotional form;
- more and more often the object of criticism is the behavior of politicians, their private and family life, incomes and the legitimacy of the source of incomes rather than the stand taken by the politicians on major problems;
- emotions and anxiety about one' own future prevail over logic and pragmatism;
- the desire to choose «a lesser evil» rather than a promising program for resolving the crisis that gripped the country.
While highlighting election campaigns the mass media usually make use of the following parameters to criticize candidates, political parties or electoral associations:
1. Public reputation:
- the politician's statements
- voting on various issues;
- the stand taken on major issues;
- promises that have not been fulfilled;
- improper behavior at public events and generally in public places, etc.
2. Inappropriate statements :
- inarticulate speech;
- use of obscenities;
- forecasts that have not come true;
- inability briefly to formulate one's position on various issues.
3. Ill-considered voting in legislative bodies :
- voting on various issues, which runs counter to public statements of a politician or political movement.
4. Election promises that cannot be fulfilled :
- general promises not supported by the analysis of the budget and expenses;
- promises that are clearly unrealistic because of the lack of funds;
- promises that will be outright rejected by the public.
5. Refusal to take a definite stand on a concrete issue :
For instance, some factions in the State Duma have repeatedly evaded public condemnation of statements made by their members and, at the same time, have not openly supported these statements.
6. Refusal to disclose the sources of incomes (in particular, the sources of money used for buying real estate, cars of foreign make, etc.).
7. The attempts to avoid disclosing the sources of financing for the election campaign.
8. The facts testifying to the use of budget funds for election campaigning.
9. Receipt of funds for election campaigning purposes from persons who have been accused of financial dishonesty (tax evasion, transfer of funds abroad, etc.).
10. Taking advantage of one's official position for rendering various forms of assistance (tax concessions and/or customs privileges, etc.) to firms and organizations which finance the election campaign.
11. Indifference to the real problems of the population. For instance, disregard for the demands of the strike movement, etc.
12. Criminal past.
The voters have the right to know about such facts in the biography of the present-day politicians as swindling, embezzlement, alimony, traffic violations with serious consequences, even if the conviction has already been cancelled.
13. Dismissal from civil or military service or from law enforcement bodies for serious violations.
14. Absence of qualification or experience for occupying the office a candidate aspires to. The voter's attention is drawn to the level of experience and qualifications of the opponent (a job in some concrete economic field or simply a party functionary).
15. Lack of knowledge of facts of everyday life . It often happens that high-ranking officials have no idea how much a loaf of bread or metro fare costs.
Concrete politicians are often fickle in their views and can be compared to a weather vane. Successful use is made of the results of voting in the bodies of legislative power.
17. The stand taken on disputable issues . An issue is found on which the opponent has no clear-cut stand and the opponent is driven to a position where he is compelled to avoid presenting his views.
18. Support of the position opposed by the majority of the population .
19. Refusal to take part in debates . Usually such a refusal is interpreted as the lack of confidence in one's victory, disregard for rivals, haughtiness. In Russia most candidates refuse to face opponents in an open debate and there is no tradition of public debates.
20. Indirect accusations by means of which the opponent is associated with some person whose reputation is tainted.
21. Presentation of the state of affairs so as to show that the leader of the party (movement) does not control the situation in his/her own party or subordinate structures.
22. Business activity carried on by persons occupying state or elective offices. The same for members of the family.
Some Characteristic Features of a Negative Campaign in the Mass Media
- usually do not address the substance of the matter and have nothing to do with the main themes of the campaign,
- are intended for purely emotional response and appeal to base instincts,
- often contain a mere grain of truth which is inflated,
- are usually hinted at rather than made directly,
- often make use of symbolic elements and terms appealing to the emotions of the voters;
- contain exaggerations, inflate minor incidents,
- in some concrete cases, purport to show that the opponent could have put the situation under control but has not done so,
- are made through third persons to avoid responsibility. If the worst comes to the worst, a minor functionary is blamed for everything and is fired,
- often are based on distorted facts,
- are repeated until they are proved to be false,
- rely on the theory that «there is no smoke without fire»: as a minimum it is possible to evoke certain doubts in voters.
Effective forms of dissemination of accusations:
- an effective method used in the west is to mail the information to the segment of the electorate which may play a decisive role in the given constituency. This is usually done virtually on the eve of voting day so that the opponent has no time to issue a denial;
- as a rule, use is made of reputable mass media, i.e., the reliability is ensured by the cover of journalistic objectivity.
The mass media must be ready to face the situation in which the candidates or electoral blocs subjected to criticism will:
- demand immediate denial ,
- hold the mass media or the concrete journalist personally responsible for dissemination of false accusations,
- engage persons and organizations enjoying credibility among the population to deny information that has been published or disseminated otherwise,
- file a lawsuit.
- accuse the media outlet or the journalist of denigration and cast doubts on his honesty and integrity.
The leading political consultants in the west admit that starting from the 1960s election campaigns are becoming increasingly negative and draw their attention of the voters to the weaknesses of candidates as politicians and human beings rather than to the substance of their programs or proposals. They relate the growth of the negative aspects of election campaigns with low voter turnout, loss of interest in nation-wide political processes, general rejection of the politics . The experience of the past years shows that in Russia, too, the negative forms and method of election campaigning are becoming increasingly common.
Unlike the forms of «dirty PR» (doubles, use of unlawfully obtained compromising material, amoral methods, etc.) the use of the methods described above in the presence of accurate and confirmed information cannot be regarded as violation of law . Nevertheless, it would by always advisable to consult a lawyer about each concrete case.
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