The $15K Tweet: Illinois “Fair Tax” Scandal

The world of politics has become profoundly influenced by news networks, social media, and other technological innovations. As you go about your daily surf of the internet, it is not uncommon to find a plethora of advertisements and testimonies either praising or criticizing a candidate, policy, or proposed measure. This has led to the creation of social media teams whose sole task is to transcend their political message beyond the framework of traditional campaigning.

The Scandal

While integrating politics with social media uncovers the truth, it also invites falsity, fake news, and ‘alternative facts.’ A recent allegation presents evidence that the campaign promoting Illinois Governor J.B Pritzker’s “Fair Tax Amendment,” has promoted a doctored tweet with the intent of stimulating support for the amendment. According to Facebook, “the committee spent between $10,000 and $15,000 to promote the fake tweet,” and further investigation shows that, “Pritzker has given $56.5 million to the committee — more than 99 percent of its total funding.” Furthermore, when asked about these allegations during a press conference, Pritzker continually dodged the questions.

Why though?

This allegation lies in the context of the United States’ critical 2020 election, in which the Fair Tax Amendment was voted on. The outlined goals of this amendment are to, “Address Illinois’ structural budget deficit and put the state on the path toward fiscal sustainability, bring the tax system up-to-date with the one used by a majority of states and the federal government, and Ensure at least 97% of Illinoisans see their taxes cut.” These are all reasonably sound goals, and create optimism for voters. Governor Pritzker’s main interests in promoting this amendment are to, “alleviate the burden on the working and middle class and ask the wealthiest people to pay a little bit more.”

Is rivalry a motivation?

Even more interesting, this issue has pitted Billionaire Pritzker against Billionaire Ken Griffin, Illinois’ wealthiest resident. Griffin countered Pritzker by giving $53.75 million to the Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment, which makes up 96% of the Coalition’s funding. He also sent an email to his nearly 1000 employees criticizing the proposed tax, stating that it was a symbol of, “Springfield’s continued grotesque and willful fiscal irresponsibility,” that, “leaves our state on the brink of disaster.” Griffin says he opposes the tax because the outcome it seeks will further burden the state through a, “deepening budget deficit, a public pension crisis and the worst credit rating and outbound migration in the country.”

The similarities between Governor Pritzker and Griffin are extraordinary. They both fund over 95% of their respective coalitions and campaigns, and are fervently aimed at revitalizing their communities. Both of them are also members of the Civic Committee Of The Commercial Club Of Chicago, which focuses on the state’s serious financial issues and aims to develop a comprehensive plan to solve them. With this in mind, it is clear that although Pritzker and Griffin are on opposing sides with regard to the Fair Tax Amendment, they are still both wealthy billionaires whose political ambitions are rooted in, “philanthropic and community initiatives,” in Illinois. With an equal effort — financially and socially — on both sides of the Fair Tax Amendment, the context of funding a fake tweet in favor of the tax is plausible. It could have been motivated by the precarious nature of the election. The Fair Tax Amendment campaign may have resorted to this measure as a means of out-witting the opposing coalition.

What is quite striking is that although Governor Pritzker serves as a member of the Civic Committee Of The Commercial Club Of Chicago, the committee itself decided to oppose the Fair Tax Amendment, after extensive and thoughtful consideration. In its statement, the committee asserted that based on Illinois’ past history of fiscal mismanagement, Illinois would not be able to address its long-term financial challenges. And as a result, there would be a loss of jobs and cuts in social services. Their statement heavily emphasizes how the proposed amendment would not, “change the negative narrative about the state.” The committee has spearheaded bipartisan initiatives to provide prosperous outcomes in education and technology since its foundation in the 1870s. Its distinctive decision to oppose the Fair Tax movement uncovers the potential flaws of the amendment. The committee affirms that it would gladly support a graduated income tax, but only as part of a comprehensive plan that would, “further reduce rates for the lowest income brackets.”

Corruption may be the key

Despite all of these promising measures, why would the Fair Tax Amendment campaign strive to produce illegitimate tweets in order to promote it? One possible answer lies in Illinois’ past history of corruption. “Years and years of fiscal mismanagement, without any genuine reform, mean the tax’s supporters have no credibility with the voters.” This exemplifies the infamous financial mishandling of Illinois authority figures, whose myriad of unfulfilled promises and indifference to reform have rendered a climate of distrust amongst voters. Various elected officials have proclaimed their promises to remove tollways from Illinois highways, reform property taxes, or even to use the Illinois Lottery revenue to fund schools. Alas, all of these promises were left forgotten by elected officials. It is quite possible that the Fair Tax Amendment Committee anticipated this exact precariousness of voters, and decided to pursue a method — albeit a questionable one — of bolstering support.

The $15K Tweet

Upon further inspection of the “Vote Yes for Fairness” committee’s Facebook page, a total purchase of $10 to $15 thousand dollars was made to promote a tweet in support of the proposed amendment. It also was targeted to reach over 1 million eligible Illinois voters. The Facebook account tweeted a screenshot of a tweet from an unverified account with the handle @liz_uihlein and the name “Liz Uihlein.” The account was accompanied by a photo of Uihlein, president of Wisconsin-based industrial supplier Uline, and a known billionaire. The tweet read, “Why should I be expected to subsidize my employees’ taxes? They don’t need a handout from me, they already get a paycheck. Vote NO on the tax hike amendment.” A Uihlein spokesperson confirmed that the account was fake and that Liz had never had a Twitter account. The account was reported, and Twitter removed the account.

How social media can rupture politics

Social media’s role in promoting this inconspicuous fake tweet is also notable. According to scholarly research conducted in the USA and Croatia, social media users, especially Gen Z, “have serious difficulties evaluating digital information sources on the Internet. In a study, two-thirds of respondents were unable to determine the difference between a paid ad and a post on the popular website Slate.com, while more than half of high school students believed a doctored video filmed in Russia had ‘strong evidence’ that voters were duped in the 2016 US election by manipulation with election results.” The inability of people to identify fake news and misleading headlines serves as a tremendous threat to online information distribution. This research points out a distinctive observation that effectively accentuates the potential impact that young people have on the spread of information through social media. Ninety percent of teenagers use social media, and are active almost daily. The constant presence of unverified information that floats through social media platforms, and the ability to share such media with one click, increases the chances with which teenagers can possibly spread false information. Based on this, we can reasonably assume that upon viewing this advertised tweet on their feed, Illinoisans most likely accepted it to be the truth, and therefore influenced the decision they made on election day.

The dissemination of the fake tweet puts Truth at stake. Society is unable to distinguish between true and false, and is constantly being presented with inconspicuous misinformation. This misinformation is broadly initiated through rumours. According to scholarly research conducted in Kuwait and the UK, “The spread of fake news has been likened to the spread of disease… [and] rumours tend to spread in a similar way to how disease spreads.” The research goes on to use epidemiology based models as a way to represent the spread of fake news on social media. “Ignorant” refers to those who are not aware of a certain rumor yet. This Ignorant user can either be infected or vaccinated from the rumor. The Infected ones can relay their information to other individuals through social media posts. The Vaccinated users become vaccinated by anti-rumor messaging, which may consist of verified news articles which debunk fake news before the Ignorant is aware of the rumor. It can be speculated that this same model influenced the dissemination of the Fair Tax Committee’s fake tweet. The Ignorant individuals may have been infected through reposts or upon viewing the actual fake tweet, and they may have further shared the fake tweet, therefore believing it was real. Other Ignorant individuals may have viewed an article invalidating the fake tweet before having been exposed to the rumor, which therefore made them Vaccinated. This research presents an invigorating model that can be applied to many instances of misinformation on social media, and can aid in classifying the origins of fake news.

Nonetheless, the tactic used by the Fair Tax Committee is not to be forgotten, and other campaigns may likely take advantage of what the “Vote Yes for Fairness” committee decided to pursue.

Although the Fair Tax Amendment was not passed, it still garnered 45% of the vote. Whether this substantial result can be contributed to the promotion of this fake tweet is uncertain. However, we can confirm that the activity of the committee in promoting the amendment on social media played a vital role in its portrayal in the public and online spheres.

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