Here’s a situation I’m sure we’ve all encountered. A friend of mine was infuriated by some comments he saw online and felt a need to share them with me. I knew where this was going and since this wasn’t going to affect either of our lives in any positive way, I tried to put a stop to it early. In the most polite terms I could muster, I told him there are a lot of crazy people out there with a lot of crazy things to say. Why should either of us give any time or attention to one that happens to have a soapbox – in this case, the internet? Why would we deliberately invite negativity into our lives? And furthermore, why would we want to dump all this garbage on a friend?

We’ve developed some odd habits in the age of the internet. One that I feel is the most damaging is this tendency to agonize over and disseminate absurdities. Instead of using these valuable communication tools to enrich our lives with something constructive or positive, we’d rather focus on frivolous, sensationalized content that only brings stress and aggravation. Not only that, but it gives a voice to these people.  Believe it or not, if you ignore someone, they will often go away, both online and in real life. Everyone has a right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to listen.

Just last week there was a video that went viral of a woman going off on some racist, xenophobic rant to some young men in a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong. This kind of behaviour should be challenged and dealt with, but why does it go viral? Apart from law enforcement and perhaps some lawyers and her employer, who else really needs to see this?

I don’t relish the thought of bringing politics into my blog, but I work in the media, and in an age when the two are so closely connected – often to their mutual detriment – I feel I should weigh in. I’m not here to tell you how to vote. I want to address a growing problem with how we handle elections in the media, and in the age of social media, pretty much all of us are the media, whether we realize it or not.

So here in Ontario we have a political candidate who is getting a lot of negative attention. In keeping with the spirit of this blog I will not use his real name. Let’s just call him ‘D’.

D has enraged a lot of people with his dubious reputation and his political plans. In the last few weeks it seems you can’t go anywhere without hearing about D. He seems to dominate both the social and conventional media, and very little of it is complimentary. I’m actually writing this on a train on the way to Toronto. The fellow next to me is reading the paper. I turned briefly to see what he was reading. I think you can guess who’s picture adorned the second page.

Does this sound familiar?

A couple of years ago our friends to the south were dealing with a political candidate who basically built his whole campaign on infamy. Let’s call him T. There was an overwhelming effort to demonize and discredit T, but despite all these efforts, he won.

How did this happen?

There’s an old adage that any publicity is good publicity. I’m not sure I totally agree with that. I think we all need to be mindful of credibility and how our actions affect us long-term. However there’s no doubt that bad publicity can work to one’s advantage, at least in the short term. Here was a political candidate who had no plan, but ranted and raved his way to the top. Now normally if a man rants and raves, people ignore him and hope he gets over whatever is bothering him. They don’t give him a microphone. But for some reason, they did give him a microphone, and of course we all know how that ended.

Toward the end of his campaign, T would continually vilify the media for their unfavourable coverage of him, a battle that continues to this day. This was very odd because the media was almost solely responsible for his success. Here was a man who had no plan or qualifications, but was given enough attention to dominate virtually all media. Toward the end of the election you could tell certain media agencies realized what was happening, but by then it was too late. Their almost constant coverage of this man gave him all the momentum he needed.

Ask yourself, how many times do you need to be told something before it becomes truth? In the advertising world, there are people who say you need to hear a message seven times before you just remember it. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but there is no doubt that repetition is one of the easiest and most widespread methods of persuasion. I don’t claim to be an expert in psychology, but from what I understand, psychologists call this the ‘illusion of truth effect’. If we read or hear the same message enough times, sooner or later we begin to believe what we hear or read whether it is true or not.

Classic Orwell. Two plus two is five.

Let’s take that a step further. If there are four people running for mayor, and only one candidate is given any exposure, good or bad, in many people’s minds, that person is already mayor.

So let’s go back to the Ontario election and D. Right now I would say anyone who’s been following the election with just a casual interest would certainly know who the candidates are, but I’d be willing to bet few of them know what any of them stand for. At the same time if you asked them what D was up to, they could tell you all kinds of stories.

Just this morning I heard an attack ad about D. I’ve never liked attack ads. I think they often work against the party producing them. They give exposure to the attacked, and make the attacker look petty. By the end of this particular ad, I had heard all kinds of awful things about D, but I don’t even recall which party produced the ad.

As we approach June 7th, we have a real opportunity to learn from the mistakes of both the US and the media. As I said before, I’m not here to tell you how you should vote. If you believe in a candidate and what they represent, by all means support them. But if you think a political candidate is not worth the time, don’t give it to them. Consider that the exposure you give them, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, could work in their favour.