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Thursday: Turning the Worm

Sorry I haven’t been around much these days.  Thank you, Katiebird for keeping the place up.  :-)

I haven’t got much news this morning but I did hear an interesting interview on The Naked Scientists podcast about the “worms” that television media outlets use during campaign season.  The worm is a graphical overlay on a broadcast debate or interview that records and displays the real time responses of a set of participants to what the politicians are saying.  It turns out that the worm may have a larger effect on the general audience than what the politicians are actually saying. It is also possible to “freep” the worm in order to deliberately introduce bias.  Here’s a snippet:

Chris –   So how did you actually do the study?

Colin –    Well, we ran what was conceptually a very simple experiment, although technically it was somewhat difficult.  We had two quite large groups of subjects come in on the evening of the final election debate last year (on April 29th), and they watched a version of the debate that includes the worm (the squiggly line going up and down).  But we played a little trick on our subjects because although they were watching the genuine live debate, which we were getting from the BBC stream, the “worm” that they were seeing wasn’t the real worm, it was controlled by us.  I was sitting in my office, watching the debate, and pressing some keys to move the worm about and hopefully making it look plausible.  The worm that our subjects saw was based on the one that I was moving about, but biased in a particular direction.  So for one group the worm was systematically biased in favour of Gordon Brown, and for the other group it was biased in favour of Nick Clegg.  Then we used some video mixers so that we could superimpose our worms over the live BBC broadcast.  Based on people’s responses afterwards via questionnaire, we can tell that our deception was successful, so the subjects on the whole believed that this was a real broadcast and the worm was genuine.

Chris –   But more critically, what was the outcome when you ask the students who won the debate?

Colin –   What our results suggest is that the worm is having a huge influence.  In fact, it’s much greater than we had anticipated.  Our two groups had completely different ideas about who had won the debate and their opinions were consistent with what the worm had been telling them.  So the group that saw a worm which favoured Gordon Brown thought that he had won the debate, whereas the group that saw the worm which favoured Nick Clegg overwhelmingly thought that he was the winner.  And more worryingly perhaps, we saw a similar, slightly smaller effect when we asked people about their choice of preferred Prime Minister.  So if people had been voting immediately after this debate, it seems like our manipulation could have had a significant effect on how they voted.

Give this one a listen or read the transcript.  The Confluence has always recommended caution when viewing broadcast and cable news.  Here’s one more reason to avoid it and stick to C-Span.  Pssst, pass it along.

For those of you who like to read studies of this kind, here’s the link to the PLOS paper, Social Influence in Televised Election Debates: A Potential Distortion of Democracy.   Here’s the money quote from the Discussions section:

In principle, televised election debates allow voters to form judgements about the leaders and their policies without the filter of (often unbalanced) media sources. Some writers have argued that this absence of “spin” is also a positive aspect of the worm:

I love the crawler and think that it really helps you understand what’s going on in the debates – in particular, it helps you take one step back from your own prejudices. It’s also just about the only input into debate commentary that comes more or less unmediated; the anonymous “undecided” focus group participants might be dumb or irrational, but they’re at least not pushing an agenda. Raw data is always good to have. [30]

According to this perspective, the worm is simply an additional source of “raw data”. Schill and Kirk [10]agree with this perspective, arguing that broadcasting the worm is “fundamentally empowering”, in that “it provides viewers more information to consider when watching the debates and forming their own opinions”. However, we dispute the claim that this is empowering to the viewer. Rather, our results indicate that the presence of the worm makes it more difficult for viewers to form opinions that are truly their own.

Caveat Emptor.  The rest of the podcast is pretty good too.  This week, the Naked Scientists features an extended section on cell phones.  Yep, all the information you can eat on how to fry your brain with radio waves.  Check it out.

Tomorrow is my last day of work.  I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had a lot of time to dedicate to finding a new one.  That starts in earnest today.  I should have more time on my hands for blogging and I have a few topics I want to cover, like the Walmart class action gender discrimination lawsuit.  That could be a biggy.  There are a number of similar lawsuits pending, such as the one filed by women working at Lockheed-Martin.  Does this sound familiar, ladies?:

The lead plaintiff in the case, Carol Bell, a more than 20-year veteran of the company, asserts that she and other females employed by Lockheed Martin face a “glass ceiling” that prevents them from being considered for upper management level positions. Moreover, Plaintiffs allege that women who do hold these senior leadership positions are primarily relegated to “traditionally female” departments, such as Human Resources, Ethics, and Communications.

The suit also alleges that women in positions across various levels at Lockheed Martin are disproportionately paid less than men who perform substantially similar work, with similar or lesser skills and experience, and are disproportionately rated lower than men as a result of the company’s “bell curve” forced rating systems. Lower selection rates in “stretch” positions, leadership training, and other advancement track opportunities have resulted in lower compensation for female professionals; in contrast, male employees with lesser qualifications and experience find themselves on a fast track to promotion.

According to the complaint, it is Lockheed Martin’s practice to restrict posting of open positions Director-level and above (contrary to its policy for lower-level positions which are posted). The suit alleges that Lockheed Martin does not have an application or a formal interview process for these management positions, and instead makes promotion decisions in secretive meetings in which women often are not present.

The Walmart suit could have a domino effect on other similar suits, like Lockeheed Martin’s, and Bayer’s.  The Bayer one hits particularly close to home.  Go read the examples from the complaint on that one.  Amazing and very disturbing. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.  We finally have the magical 30% female composition on the court but will they be persuasive enough with old Catholic fogeys like  Scalia and particularly Kennedy?  Or will the six boys schedule their own meeting and come to a decision without Sotomayor, Kagan and Bader-Ginsburg?

Keep your eyes on this one.

In the meantime, it’s time to say goodbye to the best job I ever had.  Many thanks to all of my colleagues who have made my last seven years so rewarding:

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