Canadian election 2015: Leaders’ debate

Regular readers will recall that I’m interested in elections as examples of the language and strategy of influence — what we learn can be applied to understanding jihadist propaganda.

The Canadian election has begun, and last night was the first English-language debate by the four party leaders: Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair, and Justin Trudeau. Party leaders do not get elected directly, so all four participants had trouble wrapping their minds around whether they were speaking as party spokespeople or as “presidential” candidates.

Deception is a critical part of election campaigns, but not in the way that people tend to think. Politicians make factual misstatements all the time, but it seems that voters have already baked this in to their assessments, and so candidates pay no penalty when they are caught making such statements. This is annoying to the media outlets that use fact checking to discover and point out factual misstatements, because nobody cares, and they can’t figure out why.

Politicians also try to present themselves as smarter, wiser, and generally more qualified for the position for which they’re running, and this is a much more important kind of deception. In a fundamental sense, this is what an election campaign is — a Great White Lie. Empirically, the candidate who is best at this kind of persona deception tends to win.

Therefore, measuring levels of deception is a good predictor of the outcome of an election. Recall that deception in text is signalled by (a) reduced use of first-person singular pronouns, (b) reduced use of so-called exclusive words (“but”, “or”) that introduce extra complexity, (c) increased use of action verbs, and (d) increased use of negative-emotion words. This model can be applied by counting the number of occurrences of these words, adding them up (with appropriate signs), and computing a score for each document. But it turns out to be much more effective to add a step that weights each word by how much it varies in the set of documents being considered, and computing this weighted score.

So, I’ve taken the statements by each of the four candidates last night, and put them together into four documents. Then I’ve applied this deception model to these four documents, and ranked the candidates by levels of deceptiveness (in this socially acceptable election-campaign meaning of deceptiveness).

wordseffectsThis figure shows, in the columns, the intensity of the 35 model words that were actually used, in decreasing frequency order. The rows are the four leaders in alphabetical order: Harper, May, Mulcair, Trudeau; and the colours are the intensity of the use of each word by each leader. The top few words are: I, but, going, go, look, take, my, me, taking, or. But remember, a large positive value means a strong contribution of this word to deception, not necessarily a high frequency — so the brown bar in column 1 of May’s row indicates a strong contribution coming from the word “I”, which actually corresponds to low rates of “I”.

deceptdocsThis figure shows a plot of the variation among the four leaders. The line is oriented from most deceptive to least deceptive; so deception increases from the upper right to the lower left.

Individuals appear in different places because of different patterns of word use. Each leader’s point can be projected onto this line to generate a (relative) deception score.

May appears at the most deceptive end of the spectrum. Trudeau and Harper appear at almost the same level, and Mulcair appears significantly lower. The black point represents an artificial document in which each word of the model is used at one standard deviation above neutral, so it represents a document that is quite deceptive.

You might conclude from this that May managed much higher levels of persona deception than the other candidates and so is destined to win. There are two reasons why her levels are high: she said much less than the other candidates and her results are distorted by the necessary normalizations; and she used “I” many fewer times than the others. Her interactions were often short as well, reducing the opportunities for some kinds of words to be used at all, notably the exclusive words.

Mulcair’s levels are relatively low because he took a couple of opportunities to talk autobiographically. This seems intutively to be a good strategy — appeal to voters with a human face — but unfortunately it tends not to work well. To say “I will implement a wonderful plan” invites the hearer to disbelieve that the speaker actually can; saying instead “We will implement a wonderful plan” makes the hearer’s disbelief harder because they have to eliminate more possibilities’ and saying “A wonderful plan will be implemented” makes it a bit harder still.

It’s hard to draw strong conclusions in the Canadian setting because elections aren’t as much about personalities. But it looks as if this leaders’ debate might have been a wash, with perhaps a slight downward nudge for Mulcair.

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