This year’s campaign-finance phenomenon is the 527 committee, named after the section of the tax code under which such groups are created. Originally designed to shelter political parties from taxation, Section 527 is being exploited by political groups to avoid contribution limits, spending limits, and donor disclosure rules. (The House voted 385-39 Tuesday night to require the groups to disclose their donors and their spending. The Senate has yet to approve the legislation.) The groups engage in the same political activities as a campaign, a political party, or a political action committee. They run TV and radio ads. They poll voters. They raise money by telephone and direct mail.
And they’re starting to exploit the Web’s political potential. Not only does the Web allow 527 groups to create the illusion of being grass-roots citizens’ groups rather than fat-cat lobbyists, but it also appears to be a more persuasive lobbying tool than traditional media. For reasons that remain unclear, many people find the Internet more credible than television. A Pew Research Center study earlier this month found that Internet users feel online news sites are more believable than their TV counterparts. For example, 54 percent gave CNN.com the highest possible believability rating, compared with only 40 percent for CNN. Similar gaps were found for ABCNews.com vs. ABC News, MSNBC.com vs. NBC News, and CBSNews.com vs. CBS News.
This effect certainly holds true for issue-based political advertising. The Web sites of 527 groups such as Citizens for Better Medicare, the Club for Growth, and Shape the Debate are far more compelling than TV ads sponsored by the same organizations. Why should this be true? One possible explanation for this is that we are more attuned to spin when we see it on television. The tricks of the trade in political TV ads are hackneyed and recognizable. The bombastic music, the black-and-white freeze-frame images, the selective quotations from news articles and congressional votes, all are familiar tools to skeptical TV viewers. Political Web sites, on the other hand, use new tricks that offer the illusion of depth and interactivity.
Here’s a primer on how the Citizens for Better Medicare, the 527 group with the most extensive Web presence, uses the conventions of the Web to spin:
The Citizens for Better Medicare is a classic example of “AstroTurf” (fake grass-roots) lobbying. Pharmaceutical companies, not average citizens, founded the group as a front for their lobbying efforts. On television, the group’s ads, which star a fictional woman named “Flo,” raise immediate suspicion. The viewer has unanswered questions: Who is the Citizens for Better Medicare? Who funds it? What is the group’s political orientation?
The Web allows the group to “answer” these questions. The “Who We Are” section declares that the Citizens for Better Medicare is “broad-based” and “bipartisan.” Yes, drug companies are represented by the group, but only as part of a laundry list of constituents: “patients, seniors, pharmaceutical research companies, doctors, caregivers, hospitals, employers, health-care experts and many others concerned with the health of Americans and our Medicare system.” The group endorses bromides such as “meaningful Medicare reform that benefits all Americans.” It even presents a list of harmless-sounding member organizations.
The site exhorts you to take action in a variety of ways. You can send a telegram to your member of Congress, alert a friend about the Citizens for Better Medicare, or join the group. Citizens for Better Medicare, however, controls the content of the congressional telegram or the alert to your friend. There is not even a space to append a personalized message, which many political sites allow.
The site invites users to “Learn More” about the Medicare debate. Here you can read entire articles about Medicare, rather than simply listening to the quotations that appear on your TV screen during a 30-second ad. With sections such as “Perspectives on the Current Debate,” the links give the appearance of depth. The perspectives are mostly limited, however, to conservative criticisms of the Medicare system and a prescription drug benefit. By presenting a large number of links from a limited ideological perspective, the site gives users the feeling they are directing their own learning about the Medicare debate, when in fact they are learning only what the group intends them to learn.
The Center for Better Medicare TV ads (also available on the site) are well-crafted, but their agenda is transparent. The group’s Web site is more cunning. It takes the Web’s strengths—depth of information, interactivity, and the ability to link to other sites—and turns them to the purposes of political spin. It may rely on tricks—but at least they’re new ones.