Posts Tagged 'spin'

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.

You heard it here first

As I predicted on August 8th, Obama has won the U.S. presidential election. The prediction was made based on his higher levels of persona deception, that is the ability to present himself as better and more wonderful than he actually is. Romney developed this a lot during the campaign and the gap was closing, but it wasn’t enough.

On a side note, it’s been interesting to notice the emphasis in the media on factual deception, and the huge amount of fact checking that they love to do. As far as I can tell, factual deception has at best a tiny effect on political success, whether because it’s completely discounted or because the effect of persona is so much stronger. On the record, it seems to me to be a tough argument that Obama has been a successful president, and indeed I saw numerous interviews with voters who said as much — but then went on to say that they would still be voting for him. So I’m inclined to the latter explanation.

Including the results of the third debate

Just a quick update from the persona deception rankings from yesterday, to include the text of the third debate (assuming that each statement is free form, which is slightly dubious).

Here’s the figure:

Persona deception scores after the third debate

You can see that they are running neck and neck when it comes to persona deception. Adding in the third debate changes the semantic space because the amount of text is so large compared to a typical campaign speech. The points corresponding to debates lie in the middle of the pack suggesting that neither is trying to hard to present themselves as better than they are — this is probably typical of a real-time adversarial setting where there aren’t enough cognitive resources to get too fancy.

Update on persona deception in the US presidential election

Recall that persona deception is the attempt, by a politician, to seem more wonderful than s/he actually is. It’s a form of deception, and can be detected fairly readily using the Pennebaker deception model. As I mentioned in the previous post, it relies on the ability to speak in a freeform (i.e. unprompted) way. However, both of the presidential debates so far have used the questions only as faint stimulators of pre-prepared talking points so I’m including them (but some caveats apply).

Here is the picture of the levels of persona deception over time, where I’ve changed to a more conventional red for Romney and blue for Obama.

red – Romney; blue – Obama

Apart from a few high-scoring speeches by Romney, there isn’t much separation between the two candidates. The differentiating between top-left and bottom-right is mostly driven by Obama’s heavy use of “I’m” and one of two other words that Romney doesn’t use much. The debates are labelled by the squares — it’s clear that there isn’t much difference between their debate speeches and their stump speeches, which is interesting because the former are less scripted.

However, this is a big change from my previous analysis just after the conventions. At that point Obama’s levels of persona deception were much higher than Romney’s. The change suggests that Romney has become much better at presenting the current persona (or, alternatively, that the persona he is now presenting is closer to the “real” man). Since the candidate who canĀ  best present a strong persona tends to win, this suggests that the candidates are much closer than they were.

We will see what the 3rd debate brings forth tonight…

Deception in the US Presidential Debates

You might be wondering if I’m going to be posting scores for the levels of persona deception in this evening’s presidential debate (and subsequent ones).

There’s a problem: the deception model relies on the rates at which certain kinds of words occur. In question-and-answer situations such as interrogations, and debates, the language of the questions drives, to some extent, the language of the answer. So we can’t get a clean read on the level of persona deception of the respondent without factoring out that part of the response that doesn’t come, so to speak, from inside the respondent’s head.

We can’t do this factoring yet, although we are making some progress. One of my students has developed a technique for “correcting” the word frequencies in an answer to allow for the prompting effects of words in the question. For example, using “you” in a question tends, not surprisingly, to alter the rates of pronouns such as “I” in the answer. The problem is complicated by the fact that the effects of the prompting don’t seem to be independent of the mental state of the respondent, something that others have noticed in forensic settings.

So the bottom line is that the deception model, thought effective in freeform situations such as speeches, remains problematic in interrogatory settings. The effect of a question seems to die away about 50 words into an answer, so there will be opportunities to look at levels of persona deception in longer responses, of which there will probably not be a shortage.

Update of persona deception in the US presidential election to early September

These results are somewhat limited by the low number of Romney speeches that seem to be posted on the web; and do not include any of the convention speeches.
Recall that persona deception is the attempt by politicians to appear better than they are; that this is a form of deception detectable by the Pennebaker deception model; and that, all things being equal, the candidate who presents him/herself as most wonderful will win.
This figure shows the level of persona deception in speeches, where red is Obama and blue is Romney. The straight line is the axis of deception with high sores at the red end and low scores at the green end.

The pattern is very much as it was a few months ago; and, on this evidence, Obama is still on track to win.

Here’s a great example of high scoring Obama:

“…you are aware that there is a pretty intense campaign going on right now. And the reason it’s intense is because the choice that we face in November could not be bigger. It’s not just a choice between two candidates. It’s not even just a choice between two parties. More than any election in recent memory, this is a choice between two fundamentally different paths for our country’s future.”

Not a first-person singular pronoun to be seen; hardly an exclusive word. And it could have been said by anyone.


Update — persona deception from May to early August in the US presidential race

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I compute “persona deception” scores for political figures. These measure all kinds of deception but, in the political arena, most of the deception is about candidates portraying themselves as better, nicer, wiser, and more competent than they really are (rather than factual misstatements).

Now that the US presidential race is down to two, I’ve done the analysis on their available speeches from the beginning of May up to the present (early August). Obama has made many more speeches (I’ve included both ‘campaign’ and ‘fundraiser’ speeches — I don’t know how he’s found the time to do anything else since there are three and four speeches apparently most days).

Here is the basic figure:

The line is the axis of scores, with high scores at the red end and low scores at the green end. The red crosses are Obama speeches, and the blue crosses Romney speeches. You can see that Obama’s scores (for example, projecting each point onto the line) are much higher. It seems to be the case that, all things being equal, the candidate with the higher persona deception scores wins an election. If this data holds up through the remaining 3 months, this can be considered a prediction. That’s certainly what happened in the 2008 cycle, which you can see by looking back in this blog.

For the technically minded, the two-factor structure here is often seen faintly because an individual’s use of markers such as first-person singular pronouns is often fairly uncorrelated with their use of exclusive words such as “but” and “or”. It’s more pronounced in this case by Romney’s high rate of use of “I” while Obama tends to prefer “I’m”. Overall, Obama’s high scores come from: high rates of “I’m”, high rates of “go” and “going”, and low rates of “but” and “or”. If you want to find out more, this analysis is based on James Pennebaker’s deception model, which we’ve extended by using a dimensionality reduction (so that scores are projections onto a set of eigenvectors rather than sums of marker frequencies).