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Lies, Damned Lies, and Political Campaigns 

Democracies become unstable when people no longer can function at a fundamental level of informedness

By David Schwarz, June 3, 2019 2:05 am

Kevin Kiley at SD 1 debate.

This Tuesday, voters in California’s 1st Senate District will cast ballots in a special election to replace Ted Gaines, a two-term Republican senator who gave up his seat after being elected to the California Board of Equalization.  At first glance, the two candidates appear to have much in common.  Both Kevin Kiley and Brian Dahle represent “safe” GOP Assembly districts.  Their voting records aren’t that different.  Kiley ran on his record; that is, when he wasn’t refuting Dahle’s misinformation about that record.  Dahle’s candidacy was less a textbook example of retail politics than a master class in demagogic propaganda.

No, Kiley’s old law firm didn’t represent Russia or Iraq.  I practiced law with Kevin from the time he graduated Yale Law School until he entered public service.  As near as I can tell, during my 30 years at Irell & Manella only one of my colleagues had anything to do with Iraq – as a U.S. Army intelligence officer on active duty during Gulf War II. 

No, Kiley didn’t work for Kamala Harris.  Dahle’s campaign mailers showed a doctored photo of Kiley standing next to the Democratic presidential hopeful.  Kiley has never met Senator Harris. 

No, Kiley did not “oppose giving prison time to landlords who cooperate with ICE.”  The bill in question, AB 291, did no such thing.  Never mind that Kiley didn’t vote for this legislation. 

SD 1 debate with candidates Rex Hime, Brian Dahle, Kevin Kiley. Moderated by Katy Grimes, California Globe Editor.

Making up a lie – and these are only a few of the whoppers manufactured by the Dahle campaign or its surrogates – doesn’t take much imagination.  It’s the audacity with which these lies were disseminated that deserves as much attention as the lies themselves.  Examples:

Astroturfing – disguising a misinformation campaign initiated and controlled by the candidate or his paid consultants as a spontaneous, grass roots movement.  That’s a perfect description of something called the California Republican Taxpayers’ Association, which appears to be a one-man show run by a hired political gun by the name of Brandon Gesicki.  The Dahle campaign not only pays Gesicki for political consulting; it also funded a hit piece sent out on his organization’s letterhead which, among other things, falsely accused Kiley of voting “to help let illegal immigrant criminals stay in the US.”

Laser phishing – the targeted dissemination of false but believable images by manipulation of publicly available data, i.e., grafting together two photographs of Kiley and Kamala Harris to suggest that Dahle’s opponent was an ally of the Democratic senator.  The fake does not need to be 100 percent convincing; just convincing enough to make people who want to believe the falsehood to also want to share it because it engages their antipathy toward Senator Harris.

False flagging – a covert operation designed to create the appearance of responsibility for some activity that disguises the actual source of responsibility.  This took the form of dozens of defamatory posts by a tabloid-style blogger paid by Dahle’s campaign, or a letter claiming Kiley would be responsible for future wildfires from a couple who say they lost their home in Paradise — but who are Dahle’s paid political consultants.

The “let them deny it!” gambit used by LBJ, who knowingly propagated an outrageous falsehood in order to force his opponent to deny it.  Among the more incendiary charges was the demonstrably false claim that a Kiley-sponsored bill aimed at getting veterans better access to care “sold out cancer victims.”

“Spiritual terror,” a term coined by Hitler in Mein Kampf to describe a “veritable barrage of lies and slander against whatever adversary seems most dangerous, until the nerves of the attacked persons break down.”  Whether the Dahle campaign’s misinformation barrage achieved this result is secondary to its immediate effect –  to compel Kiley to spend time, money, and his finite ability to play the endless game of reputational whack-a-mole in order to unpack and debunk his opponent’s lies.

These are blunt-force attempts to manipulate democracy.  Imagine when the deception becomes more sophisticated, less easy to detect, and is combined with yet unknown technological advances that render it near impossible for the truth to catch up with the lie. 

The result, according to Aviv Ovadya, the chief technologist for the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility, is what he calls “reality apathy.”  Democracies, explains Ovadya, become unstable “when people no longer can function at a fundamental level of informedness.”  Faced with a deluge of misinformation, people become inured to their inability to separate fact from fiction.  When that happens, they lose interest in trying to discern the difference.  Paul Newman’s washed-up lawyer in The Verdict explained in human terms what happens once we tire of hearing people lie.  “We think of ourselves as victims and we become victims.  We become weak.  We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs.  We doubt our institutions.  And we doubt the law.” 

How has that grand old institution, the California Republican Party, responded?  “Voters are going to decide which candidate they want,” said Matt Fleming, a spokesman for the CA GOP. “Either way, we’re going to have a great senator.”  It didn’t have to endorse Kiley or disavow Dahle.  But doesn’t it have a responsibility to at least acknowledge the deception played on these voters? 

“Falsehood flies,” Jonathan Swift once wrote, “and the truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late.”  Tuesday’s special may well test whether truth can even get to the starting gate.  Let’s hope that the voters are able to discern what the California Republican Party has chosen to ignore:  the difference between truth and falsehood.

David Schwarz

David A. Schwarz, the former Vice-Chairman of the California “Little Hoover” Commission, practices law at the Los Angeles office of Irell & Manella LLP.He has made political donations to Kevin Kiley’s campaigns, including the current Senate campaign.The views expressed are those of Mr. Schwarz alone.

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6 thoughts on “Lies, Damned Lies, and Political Campaigns 

  1. It just makes he ill that people can tell lies about someone else and ruin their chances of getting elected or hurt them with their friends and family without any repercussions. It’s one thing to bring out the truth about someone’s record when they are running for office, but entirely another when out and out lies are told about a person. I just wish there could be some remedy.

    For the heads of our CA Republican Party to NOT do anything about this and to say what they did, leaves a lot to be desired. Does anyone have any backbone anymore….to stand up for the truth and for what’s right?

  2. Sadly the California Republican Party is as spineless as the National Republican Party. We as conservative Americans need to take back the Republican Party by standing strong on the premise that the Party needs to represent the interests of its conservative members. Suborning and/or condoning lies, deception and “dirty politics” by someone running under the umbrella of Republican, once discerned, must be addressed head on and must be denounced.

  3. PATRIOTS: I’m 100% for Kevin Kiley! Those who know me (personally) and have met Kevin as a result of my position as a former active duty Marine involved in developing speaking presentations, can attest that I support Kevin in this Senatorial election attempt. It is beyond my comprehension how Brian Dahle can maintain his shiftless charade of innuendo and the wanton outright lies in his attempt to manipulate voter opinion without repercussion? This must be the worst campaign of tactless, vicious, vindictive, vociferous vilification of a political opponent on record in State of California election history? If not, it ranks right up there with the worst. Dahle and his minion’s desecration of truth is despicable! He and his supporters have polluted this campaign for our State Senator by their continued vulgar attempt to victimize Kevin Kiley. Why hasn’t the State Election Committee censured Brian Dahle for the villainous assault on truth since this runoff was initiated in the past 2 months? That he is recognized as a fellow Republican must be a complete misnomer. His action is wretched and a disgrace to Republican Party politics!

  4. Agree..Shame on all the individuals who went along with making up lies. Whatever happened to legal consequences for lying about someone? In the trash along with moral ethics? Oh for some, what is “moral ethics”?

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