App promises to psychoanalyze debates in real time

App promises to psychoanalyze debates in real time
Tech Corner

POSTED: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - 8:30pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - 8:34pm

In olden times, watching the presidential debates was a lonely, one-dimensional experience. Now, we have running Twitter commentary, instant fact-checks and liveblogs to help us digest the candidates' various claims and arguments as they make them.

With all that noise comes an influx of opinions and biases that can skew how viewers interpret the debates. But one new tool hopes to bring a bit of impartial science to the viewing party.

ReConstitution 2012 is a Web app that parses the language of the debates in real time. Created by Sosolimited, the site analyzes the words and sentences as they're being spoken to look for subliminal tells. It picks out words that indicate positive and negative emotions, rage, honesty and how scripted the candidates' comments are, among other things.

"We wanted a way for people to be able to see real-time running psychoanalysis of the candidates ... not to have to wait until the next day to find out what the reporters thought," Sosolimited co-founder Justin Manor said.

As a live transcription of the debate unfurls on the ReConstitution site, words and stats are instantly highlighted and annotated with bright colors. Clicking on a highlighted word tells tells you why it was called out: say, for ambiguous, gloomy or bullish language. Flip over to the right for a page of contantly updating charts comparing the candidates' tallies to each other's, as well as to those of previous presidential debaters.

There's even a list of the most repeated words for each candidate that can be used to see what topics are trending.

For example, the app's analysis of the first presidential debate two weeks ago found that President Obama used more positive language than GOP challenger Mitt Romney but also sounded more scripted.

The psychoanalyzing is powered on the back end by a program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, a project from the University of Texas at Austin that is also used by the U.S. government and law enforcement. It looks at factors such as word count, types of pronouns and its own dictionary of 4,500 words and word stems divided into various categories. The software is based on scholarly research going all the way back to a 1969 paper tying people's physical and mental health to the words they use.

For the debates, ReConstitution 2012 looks for modal verbs, such as "could" and "would." Use of these types of verbs shows an ability to talk about a different version of reality and envision things, which Manor says shows a greater grasp of detail. To determine how truthful a candidate is being, it looks for common traits of truth-tellers such as self-references ("I" instead of "we") and detailed descriptions.

"It allows you to have an instant look into the facts of what they're saying instead of relying on your own preconceptions," Manor said, adding that it gives a better image of who the candidates really are.

Using data to evaluate the debates is a great tool but isn't intended to replace watching or listening to the debate. It can detect patterns common with lying but doesn't check the full facts thrown out to see whether they are, in fact, lies.

It's refreshing to see a cold, scientific take on partisan politics, but it's only one part of an informed viewer's arsenal. For example, if it calls out a stat under "dubious figures," you can take the next step and investigate the claim.

This project, a collaboration with the Creators Project and Vice magazine, isn't the first time the studio has worked its magic on a debate. For the past two election cycles, the team has set up the software in a theater and hosted debate-watching parties, projecting the "remixed" text onto a screen. After two months of hard work, they turned it into this interactive Web app so anyone can add it as a second screen.

Sosolimited hopes to make the technology open-source so anyone can start analyzing text.

"You could put the works of Shakespeare through it, or season 4 of 'Top Chef,' " Manor said.

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