Expert Commentary

Social influence in televised election debates: A potential distortion of democracy

2011 study by Royal Holloway University and the University of Bristol on how real-time displays of audience response to a live debate can influence undecided voters.

The first televised U.S. presidential debate took place in 1960, when John F. Kennedy faced off against Richard Nixon in Chicago. Since then, televised election debates have spread around the world, including to nations such as Iran and Afghanistan, even as technology has continued to improve. A new feature of some contests is the real-time display of the reactions of a small group of undecided voters to the candidates’ words. As the potential voters react positively or negatively, a line — called “the worm” because of its sinuous movements — rises and falls on viewers’ screens.

While broadcasters suggest that this new feature adds drama to debates, concerns have also been raised: Does “the worm” interfere with viewers’ ability to form independent judgments? Is the sample size too small to provide any meaningful information? How large is the potential for manipulation?

A 2011 study by Royal Holloway University of London and the University of Bristol published in PLoS ONE, “Social Influence in Televised Election Debates: A Potential Distortion of Democracy,” examines the results of an experiment performed on a random sample of 150 undecided voters the night of the final United Kingdom election debate. The participants were divided into two groups and shown the live debate featuring worms that were manipulated by the researchers. One worm favored the incumbent, Gordon Brown, while the other favored Nick Clegg. The third debate participant, David Cameron, was favored by neither worm.

The study found:

  • Nearly half the participants in the group with the Brown-biased worm (47%) said he won the debate, while 35% and 13% reported that Clegg and Cameron won, respectively. More than three-quarters of the group with the Clegg-biased worm (79%) said he won the debate, compared to 9% and 4% for Brown and Cameron, respectively. These numbers indicate that the groups chose winners “consistent with the bias of the worm that they viewed.”
  • Cameron’s perceived performance in the experiment was much lower than that for the public at large — in a survey, the majority of the U.K. population felt that he won the debate. “His poor performance here is consistent with the fact that the worm was biased against him in both groups.”
  • The proportion of participants who said that they were undecided decreased from around 33% before the debate to 10% after the debate. “Most of these undecided voters were swayed in the direction of the worm.”
  • Even when participants said that they disagreed with the reactions of the undecided voters, the “bias of the worm significantly affected viewers’ judgments.”

While a minority of participants suspected that the worm had been manipulated, when their responses are removed from the sample an “identical pattern” in the data is observed.

Photo from the Royal Holloway Eyewitness Group. Keywords: campaign issue, technology.

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