It is campaign season and once again we are bombarded with ads from political candidates. There is mounting evidence that election cycles can lead to psychological distress. Prior to the presidential election in 2016, an APA national survey on stress in America reported that 52% of Americans identified the upcoming election as a significant cause of stress (APA, 2017). The survey found nearly two-thirds of those responding reported stress about the future of the country (66 %), including both Democrats (76 %) and Republicans (59 %) (APA, 2017). The survey also found that 38% of Americans reported politics to be a significant source of stress, with 18.3 percent reporting they had lost sleep because of politics (APA, 2017).
In the 2022 version of the APA survey of stress in America, the results showed more than three-quarters of adults (76%) considered the future of the country a significant source of stress in their lives. Reflecting the current despair, 68% said this is the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember. The current political climate was cited as a significant source of stress for 66% of the respondents with 60% attributing the current social divisiveness in the nation to their stress level and 62% responding that the racial climate in the U.S. is a significant source of stress in their lives. Twenty-seven percent of those responding said most days they are so stressed they cannot function (APA, 2022).
It is estimated that more than $9.6 billion (Faria, 2022) will be spent on political advertising this year as the two major political parties battle for control of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. A 2007 study by the advertising firm Yankelovich estimated the average person saw up to 5,000 ads daily (Story, 2007). Although there is no formal research to verify the number, it is estimated the average reader now sees between 6,000 to 10,000 ads daily (Marshall, 2015). Besides the irritation of being bombarded with advertising, a study that examined the connection between political advertising and health found consistent evidence that exposure to televised campaign ads could lead to increased odds of a person being informed by a doctor that they have anxiety, depression, insomnia, or another disease (Neiderpepe, et al., 2021).
Some campaigns design political ads that take on a dark tone designed to trigger an emotional response from the viewer, emphasizing threats to safety and security to purposefully stimulate anxiety (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015). Many political ads attack the character and policies of competing candidates and suggest that electing the opposing candidate would lead to a bleak and frightening future (Daignault et al., 2013). Negative political ads that focus on crime, terrorism, civic unrest, or threats of violent conflict, are designed to induce physiological arousal (Daignault et al., 2013) and evoke emotions such as anxiety and fear in the audience (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015).
A complementary concern is the rise in fake news. This includes disinformation, an intent to mislead; misinformation, unwittingly sharing false information or reporting on false information with no intent to mislead; and malinformation, a manipulation of what is factual, then disseminated with malicious intent. With the fragmentation of sources for news and information, media consumers have a plethora of choices. However, without the traditional gatekeepers for accuracy, i.e., editors or lawyers, social media sites are known to be most likely to spread fake news.
In a survey to examine how Americans keep up with current events, results showed 25% of those responding use news websites or apps. However, 18% of respondents said they primarily use social media for news and information, particularly those under 30 (Mitchell, et al., 2020). Sixteen percent of respondents said they watch local news and 16% watch cable news. Those who rely most on social media for news tend to be younger, are less likely to be white, and have lower levels of education than those who mainly use several other platforms. This group and those whose source for news was local television had lower levels of knowledge about major current events and politics and were more likely than other Americans to have heard many false or unproven claims. Despite the Federal Trade Commission’s statute requiring truth in advertising for traditional advertising, political advertising is protected as a first amendment right, therefore blatant lies are acceptable.
There is no magic wand to protect people from the effects of misleading or manipulative media. We live in a media-saturated environment making it difficult to escape fake news. Because one is exposed to misinformation or malinformation does not assure the falsehoods will be accepted as the truth. There are many readers who are not willing to investigate whether the information they encounter is factual. A focused effort to increase media literacy in classrooms can better prepare people to be more discerning information consumers and media producers. Teaching media literacy in grades K-12 and in higher education can foster a lifelong habit of applying critical thinking skills when accessing information. There are countless arenas where media psychologists are poised to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation and present interventions for issues that plague an information and technology driven society. Promoting widespread adoption of media literacy education is key among them.
Albertson, B., & Gadarian, S.K. (2015). Anxious politics: democratic citizenship in a threatening world. Cambridge University Press.
American Psychological Association (2017). Stress in America: The state of our nation. Stress in AmericaTM Survey. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2017/state-nation.pdf
American Psychological Association (2022). Stress in America: The state of our nation. Stress in AmericaTM Survey. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2022/october-2022-topline-data.pdf
Daignault, P., Soroka, S., & Giasson, T. (2013). The perception of political advertising during election campaign: a measure of cognitive and emotional effects. Canadian Journal of Communication, 38, 167-186
Faria, J. (2022). Political advertising spending in the United States midterm elections between January 1 and August 1, 2022, by media type. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1324465/us-political-ad- spending-by-media-type/
Marshall, R. (2015). How many ads do you see in one day? Retrieved from https://www.redcrowmarketing.com/2015/09/10/many-ads-see-one-day/
Mitchell, A., Jurkowitz, M., Oliphant, J.B., & Shearer, E. (2020). Americans who mainly get their news on social media are less engaged, less knowledgeable. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2020/07/30/americans-who-mainly-get-their-news-on-social-media-are-less-engaged-less-knowledgeable/
Niederdeppe, J., Rosemary J., Avery, R., Liu, J., Gollust, S. E., Baum, L., Barry, C. L., Welch, B., Tabor, E., Lee, N. W., & Fowler, E. F. (2021). Exposure to televised political campaign advertisements aired in the United States 2015–2016 election cycle and psychological distress. Social Science & Medicine, 277, 113898. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.113898
Smith, K.B., Hibbing, M.V., & Hibbing, J.R. (2019) Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: the Costs of politics. PloS One, 14(9), e0221870. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221870
Story, L. (2007). Anywhere the eye can see, it’s likely to see an ad. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/business/media/15everywhere.html