A case for banning the worm. I admit to being a bit of a worm addict. Watching the line creep across the screen puts some interest into televised election debates between party leaders. What they say is generally so irrelevant that something other than the words is needed to keep a sensible person interested. The Nine Network well knows it and has featured the worm — a continuous response tracking measure — for several debates now and Channel Seven joined in when Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott faced off last year with its own version.

But now the killjoy academics have struck. The worm, it seems, is positively undemocratic.

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A University of Bristol and Royal Holloway, University of London study Social Influence in Televised Election Debates: A Potential Distortion of Democracy has just been published in the journal PLoS One. It reports on an experiment with 150 participants in which the worm was manipulated and superimposed on a live broadcast of a UK election debate.

The majority of viewers were unaware that the worm had been manipulated, and yet we were able to influence their perception of who won the debate, their choice of preferred prime minister, and their voting intentions. We argue that there is an urgent need to reconsider the simultaneous broadcast of average response data with televised election debates.

(a) A screen shot from the first UK election debate (April 15, 2010), including worm, as shown on ITV.com. (b) Components involved in manipulation of worm and superposition on debate broadcast.

To test whether viewers of worm graphs are vulnerable to social influences, the researchers asked two groups of 75 adults (students at Royal Holloway, University of London) to watch a live broadcast of the third (and final) 2010 UK election debate that included a worm of a similar format as in broadcasts of prior debates. Unbeknown to the participants, the worms seen by the two groups were manipulated by to favour different candidates. In one group, the worm systematically favoured the incumbent, Gordon Brown, over the other two candidates. In the other group, the worm favoured Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. The worms seen by these two groups deviated by a fixed amount, in opposite directions, from a single baseline worm that was controlled by the experimenter. The worms were superimposed on the live broadcast using video mixers (as in figure 1). The hypothesis was that perceptions of the debate would differ between the two groups in accord with the worm’s bias.

And so it proved to be. In the Brown-biased group, 47% of participants reported that Brown had won the debate (ahead of Clegg on 35% and Cameron on 13%). By contrast, in the Clegg-biased group 79% of participants reported that Clegg had won the debate (ahead of Brown on 9% and Cameron on 4%). Thus, each group selected the winner that was consistent with the bias of the worm that they viewed. The effect of the worm’s bias on the judgments of perceived winner was significant. A noteworthy aspect of the data was the relatively poor performance of Cameron, who was widely judged in larger polls to have won the debate. His poor performance in this test was consistent with the fact that the worm was biased against him in both groups.

Professor Jeff Bowers, from the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology, comments that: “Apart from the concerns about unintentional bias, there is real possibility that the worm could be used to systematically bias the outcome of the election.

“Given the small sample of undecided voters that generate the worm, just one or two persons could influence the worm by voting for one candidate no matter what. The system is cute, but open to abuse.”

Professor Colin Davis, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, explained: “We were amazed by the size of the effect that our worms had on viewers’ opinions of who won the debate, and even on their choice of preferred Prime Minister. If our results were to generalise to the population at large, a biased worm in a debate shortly before polling day could determine the result of a close election.

He added: “In theory, an election debate should be an opportunity for the public to listen to the candidates and form independent opinions that are unfiltered by spin and commentary. The introduction of the worm compromises that possibility.

“The squiggly worm is certainly interesting to watch — sometimes more interesting than the candidates — but there’s a real danger that we can get sucked in by the worm and allow it to sway, or even determine, our opinion. Results like ours force us to reconsider to what extent ‘our’ opinions really are our own.”

A US Presidential election indicator. President Barack Obama is scheduled to formally announced his re-election campaign for 2012 this week so here is an opening version of the Crikey Presidential election indicator:

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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