An attack ad attributing a fake quote to Democrat district attorney candidate Tiffany Burks hit mailboxes across Tarrant County over the weekend. Its creator: a Virginia-based political action committee.
The two-sided ad uses a fake quote to assert Burks is soft on crime. The quote is presented under the Fort Worth Report’s logo and cites a May 24 article in the publication. However, the quote used is nowhere in the May 24 article.
Joseph McGlynn, an associate communications professor at the University of North Texas, said the use of the Fort Worth Report logo is an appeal to an outside authority in order for the misinformation to gain credibility.
“We’re trained and taught to trust parents, teachers at school, law enforcement officials, nurse leaders, whatever it might be from a very early age,” McGlynn said. “We’re taught to respect the opinions of authority sources in society. And misinformation campaigns are well aware of this tendency to trust authority sources.”
When contacted by the Fort Worth Report, Republican candidate Phil Sorrells said he hadn’t seen the mailer and hadn’t talked to anyone in Virginia about his campaign. The Report then sent Sorrells pictures of the mailer for his review.
“I guess you’d have to ask them where they came up with that,” he said. “I mean, I think it’s clear that she says she’s going to pick and choose which crimes she’s going to prosecute. But that’s not what they said. So I don’t know.”
In previous interviews with the Report, both Burks and Sorrells emphasized their focus on prosecuting crimes against people. Crimes against people increased 14% in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021, according to previous reporting. McGlynn said topics like crime and immigration are often fodder for effective misinformation campaigns because of how much voters care about them.
“You’ll see these misinformation campaigns, perhaps unfairly, portray someone or use false or misleading information at the least in order to weaken the character of the opponent,” McGlynn said. “So they rely on talking about these hot button issues that provoke emotional responses for voters.”
Protecting Americans Project Action Fund, a political action committee founded in early 2022, paid for the ad. The PAC was founded by Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, who said that it will “serve as a new firewall to stop the advancement of dangerous left-wing prosecutors and their warped sense of justice” in a commentary piece written for RealClearPolitics. Miyares did not respond to a request from the Fort Worth Report for comment.
Breakout: What is a hybrid political action committee?
Hybrid political action committees operate two separate bank accounts, each governed by a different set of rules. One account is used to make limited contributions to specific campaigns and candidates, while another can make unlimited independent expenditures. The ad targeting Burks is an example of an independent expenditure, not paid for by a candidate.
“This idea that I can’t keep our community safe and that I won’t be tough on crime is pretty ridiculous because for the last 20 years that’s exactly what I’ve been doing,” Burks, a longtime Tarrant County prosecutor, said. “And for the last 20 years, I’ve been one of the people in the office that predominantly tries some of the more violent crimes in the county.”
Miyares is among 12 advisory board members for the organization. Those members include Chris Carr, Georgia attorney general; Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia attorney general; Chris Sprowls, speaker of the Florida House; Natalie Mihalek, Pennsylvania state representative; Tim Griffin, Arkansas’ lieutenant governor, and several attorneys and former elected officials.
Since its inception, the political action committee has been largely silent on its social media accounts, and its spending has been subdued. From January to August, the Protecting Americans Project Action Fund reported only $16,235.98 in disbursements (both expenditures and other kinds of payments not made to influence a federal election). In its latest filing, however, the Protecting Americans Project Action Fund reported $35,653.62 in disbursements throughout September.
McGlynn said it doesn’t matter if the majority of voters realize the mailer, or others like it, contain misinformation.
“A misinformation campaign isn’t really trying to have mass appeal,” he said. “85% of people might say, ‘That’s obviously misinformation, that’s misleading.’ But those 15% of people, maybe some of whom are on the fence about who to vote for … That’s all the misinformation campaign really needs to do to be successful, is to influence just a small amount of people.”
As misinformation continues to spread in election cycles, he said, it’s more important than ever for voters to treat all election information with a healthy dose of skepticism, and double check information that is put out by candidates — particularly if it is information attacking their opponent.
“We’re most susceptible to misinformation that we want to be true,” McGlynn said. “We have to be very careful about our own biases and our own desires and our own preconceptions about candidates.”
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.