'Dark Money' and the Truth Behind Political Ads

Nature has always had a way of letting us know what season we're in, but it isn't the only indicator.

One commercial break, and it's clear we're smack dab in the middle of campaign season. Negative campaign ads -- they're everywhere. In fact, you've probably seen a few already, and, like it or not (and studies have shown that most Americans do not), they're the peanut butter to the jelly of campaign season.

"People say they don't like them, but in fact they do work," said Rob Wicks, a communications professor at the University of Arkansas. "Over the course of a campaign, people forget where they received the information."

"They begin to absorb information from the ad, but if you ask them 'Where'd you get your information?', they'll often say from the news media."

It comes down to conscious versus subconscious, according to Arkansas Political strategist, Skot Covert.

"When you begin inserting a seed of doubt about someone's character, you'll see that ad more and more times, and eventually that seed of doubt is manifested into fear," said Covert. "When that fear is manifested in the form of a vote, it's not going to be for the person in which the negative ad was the subject of."

So, we know negative ads work, but how much of what we're seeing and hearing is the absolute truth, and, more importantly, who exactly is behind those messages? This year, out-of-state interest groups have their sites set on the Natural State and they've got plenty of money to spend.

"You're seeing a majority -- even the vast majority of ads aired up to this point are being sponsored by the outside groups," said Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University and the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "This just wasn't the case in previous election cycles."

Ridout says the reason for this is pretty simple.

"For one, I think it's easier to do nowadays, thanks to some of those rulings from the Supreme Court and the lack of action in Congress," explains Ridout. "It's just pretty easy to funnel large sums of money into various groups to run ads with."

As Ridout suggests, recent rulings, such as Citizens United, have relaxed campaign finance laws allowing for unlimited spending, and so far this year, according to numbers from the Washington Post, these outside groups have poured more than $8-million into Arkansas's U.S. Senate race between Democratic Senator Mark Pryor and Republican challenger Congressman Tom Cotton. But what's most disturbing, says Ridout, is where that money is coming from.
"Some groups are required to disclose who their donors are," explains Ridout. "But other groups that are organized as social welfare organizations, they're able just not to reveal who their donors are."

These organizations are known as "dark money" groups, and they include the right leaning organization Americans For Prosperity and the left leaning group Patriot Majority USA, two of the biggest spenders in the race for U.S. Senate in Arkansas coming in at more than $1.4-million and $1.3-million, respectively.

"If I'm a donor and I don't want people to know that I'm giving millions of dollars to support ads for a certain candidate, then I just funnel this money through one of these groups and no one will probably ever know," said Ridout.

That anonymity creates a platform for misleading messages and half-truths, making it difficult for Arkansas voters to decipher between what's real and what's not.. Fact checking websites, like the Washington Post and Politifact help, and if a campaign deems an ad to be false, they can request a TV station pull it from air if they have enough evidence to substantiate the claim.

But that's about it.

"Think for yourself," encourages Covert. "If it sounds over the top, then it probably is. If it doesn't sound true, it probably isn't. Stick with what you know. If you're gut feeling is that it's false, then it probably is.

For more on "dark money" and Wesleyan Media Project's most recent study, click HERE.

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