Beware the Worm, and Other, More Obvious Attempts to Manipulate Public Opinion

by Meghan Rosen

Hawaiian-hula-dancer On the morning of April 8th, the day the government was scheduled to shut down if a budget deal couldn’t be reached by midnight, Arizona’s Junior Senator, Jon Kyl, made a passionate plea on the Senate floor for bipartisanship. He urged congressional leaders to “bridge the differences between the two parties” and reach an agreement.

The House had already passed a bill that made dramatic cuts to government spending, and it was time for the Senate to follow suit. The problem? Senate Democrats refused to vote for a bill that (among other cuts) defunded Planned Parenthood, and President Obama threatened to veto.

Senator Kyl, however, believed the bill was a reasonable measure to keep the government running; in fact, he said, it was necessary. To him, it just didn’t make sense to shut down the government over a program that cost taxpayers 300 million dollars a year. He wanted to put things in perspective.

For the first few minutes of his speech, Kyl sounded like the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate leadership should sound: bold, confident, and committed to solving tough fiscal problems. In these (fleeting) minutes, it was easy to see why he was unanimously elected by his party in 2008 to serve as the Republican Whip.

And then he clarified his position. It wasn’t that the amount of money going to Planned Parenthood was too insignificant, in the grand scheme of budgets and deficits, to warrant a government shutdown; rather, it was that 300 million was too much. Why hold up the budget debate for such a costly organization? Especially one that peddles abortions. After all, according to Kyl, “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood. That’s well over 90 percent of what [they] do.”

In Kyl’s case, the numbers weren’t so much fuzzy as completely out of focus. But you can see what he was thinking. Abortions are bad. 90% is a big number. Link the two together, spark some outrage, and bolster support for big spending cuts.

For a senator committed to reducing the deficit, incendiary statements that couple government waste with pro-life indignation are a sign of strength, of unyielding conservative ideals. (And it doesn’t hurt that drumming up opposition to Planned Parenthood is great for generating media buzz.)

And he did generate buzz. Hours after Kyl’s speech, CNN debunked his claim in an interview with the president of Planned Parenthood (3 percent of their services are abortions, the other 97 percent are preventative care.*) Later that afternoon, Kyl’s spokesman explained that the senator’s remark was “not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.”

Unfortunately for Kyl, only the first 7 words stuck. Stephen Colbert (Twitter account: @stephenathome) swooped in for the kill with 140 characters, a preposterous pronouncement, and a now-infamous hashtag. His first tweet, “Jon Kyl is one of Gaddafi’s sexy female ninja guards” (followed by the cheeky #NotIntenededToBeAFactualStatement) played on Kyl’s flexible interpretation of fact and fiction.
And the buzz became a roar. In the days following Colbert’s tweet, thousands of people picked up on the hashtag and tweeted their own nonsensical facts, Kyl-style. Today, more than 12,000 have been recorded.

Kyl’s not-so-subtle attempt to influence the budget debate is funny because it’s so glaringly, egregiously false. Fortunately for late-night comedians (and their legions of twitter followers), what Kyl lacked in political finesse, he made up for in unbridled pizzazz. Unfortunately for the rest of us, most manipulations of public opinion are not so obvious. In fact, some may not even be intentional.

During the 2008 presidential debates, CNN broadcasted real-time viewer opinion data in the form of a “worm”: a constantly fluctuating green or red line that tracked its way across the screen in response to live viewer input. The worm represented the average response of male or female Ohioan undecided voters; each participant controlled a small hand dial to indicate their approval at any given point during the debate. Turn it to the right, and the worm courses up (as it usually did when any candidate mentioned being tough on terrorism); turn it to the left, and the worm heads back down.

It’s a simple system, and very popular; most viewers would rather watch debate coverage with a worm than without one. But is the information useful? And can viewers separate their opinions from those represented by the worm? According to a study published last month, the answer is no. In fact, as researchers from the United Kingdom discovered, including worms in televised election debates has an unexpectedly large effect on public perceptions of politicians.

In an experiment designed to measure the worm’s powers of manipulation, researchers overlaid live video feed of a 2010 UK election debate between Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron with a biased worm (one that was pre-programmed to be pro-Brown or pro-Clegg), and evaluated viewers’ post-debate prime minister preference.

Not only were the researchers able to skew participants’ perception of who won the debate (the group watching the pro-Brown worm believed Brown won, and the pro-Clegg group thought Clegg won), but they could also manipulate the participants’ voting intentions. The worm didn’t just influence undecided voters either; participants who came into the study with a favorite candidate were also affected by its bias, even if they recognized and disagreed with it.

In CNN’s broadcast of the 2008 debate, only 30 people provided real-time responses for the televised worm. Though we’ll never know if the worm affected the outcome of the election, because millions of people watched the debate, the opinions of a tiny group had the potential to sway a large number of voters. Because of this enormous amplification, the study’s authors conclude that the seemingly innocuous worm has the power to distort democracy- even if no bias is intended.

It’s doubtful that CNN’s intention with providing the worm was anything but informational, but it’s not difficult to imagine how a less-scrupulous organization might use the tool. In fact, it might just make voters more appreciative of a good-old fashioned opinion-manipulator. Like the Junior Senator from Arizona, who, you may not have heard, is also an accomplished nude hula dancer**.

*There’s some debate about exactly how to quantify services at Planned Parenthood. In terms of total number of services provided, the percentage of abortions is relatively small; in terms of total dollars spent, the percentage is undoubtedly higher.

** #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement


Social influence in televised election debates: a potential distortion of democracy.

Davis CJ, Bowers JS, Memon A.

PLoS One. 2011 Mar 30;6(3):e18154.