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Digital politics panel focuses on disinformation, polling

May 6, 2022

In a virtual event on the evening of April 28, Bowdoin Democrats hosted a panel of political scientists and strategists who discussed issues pertaining to the 2022 midterm elections. The topics included campaign finance reform, polling in an increasingly polarized climate and careers in politics.

The panelists were Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz; Nicole Hobbs, co-founder of EveryDistrict, an organization that supports Democratic state legislature candidates and Asa Berolzheimer, an analyst at Althea Group, an organization that combats online disinformation. The panel’s moderators were Colter Adams ’24, leader of Bowdoin Democrats and JuliaKay Fiori ’24, Bowdoin Democrats’ campaign director.

One of the major topics the panelists discussed was the role disinformation on social media has in campaigns.

Berolzheimer highlighted the role of disinformation propagated by adversarial regimes. He explained that countries like Russia and China promote false narratives, such as discouraging Americans from voting by mail.

“I heard these narratives when I was speaking with voters in the 2020 cycle. People were saying all the time [that they] didn’t want to vote by mail,” Berolzheimer said. “When a narrative like that comes from a foreign adversary, it gets pushed into a disinformation network in the US, and it’s really easy for it to get picked up first by fringe networks [and then] your mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”

Expanding on Berolzheimer’s points about social media, Franz drew attention to the aspects of these platforms that differ from traditional broadcast media. He explained that the types of deception and disinformation seen on social media are less of an issue on television because television advertisements have a broader reach, which open them to greater scrutiny. He also noted that with the expansion of digital media and the “Citizens United” ruling in 2010, the level of scrutiny applied to political messaging has significantly decreased.

“Unknown entities masked by some good name … funded by who knows [how to use] these digital platforms to target voters with messages that will go under the radar,” Franz said. “[These messages] are highly targeted—nobody’s really noticing them, except certain voters that are the focus on the targets. They don’t get covered by the media.”

Franz added that another major issue in the 2022 campaign will be the reliability of opinion polls.

“This is a really concerning issue for pollsters—the possibility that there is such dissatisfaction with ‘elites’ from Republicans in the country that [Republicans] are opting out at higher rates,” Franz said. “Even when you weight your results for education, the white working class voters that are in your sample are already more inclined to vote for the Democrats than the white working class voters that just ignore your phone calls over and over again.”

Later, the panelists discussed their careers in politics and how student attendees could become more involved in the political world.

Hobbs said that the experience that prepared her most to found and develop EveryDistrict was working as president of the College Democrats of Connecticut during her time as a student at Yale University.

“When I took over the College Democrats of Connecticut, it was a chapter that had kind of fallen by the wayside,” she said. “It was a project I really took on to rebuild an organization from the ground up.”

Hobbs explained that she uses many of the growth and fundraising strategies she learned in her previous position in her current work at EveryDistrict. She encouraged students to gain these skills by assuming leadership positions and cultivating their professional skill sets.

Berolzheimer stressed the importance of being passionate about one’s work and joining a positive work environment.

“My advice is to find a place where your co-workers and your bosses and managers care about your professional and personal development. I don’t think you should settle for anything less than that,” Berolzheimer said.

Franz told attendees that one of the most important skills in today’s political climate is being able to parse data effectively.

“It seems straightforward, but it’s important that we’re good at reading that information, because that’s how people can trick us––they can play around with numbers,” Franz said. “If you’re equipped at asking good questions about how a data set is structured, or what is in a particular graphic, you will be better at pushing back on the capacity of the producer of that graphic to trick you.”

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